The election results of Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura have thrown up a few dramatic surprises and confirmed three major trends in the region. The first is that the BJP is the biggest gainer, with three leaders playing significant roles — the party’s biggest crowd-puller and star campaigner, as elsewhere in the country, PM Modi; Home Minister Amit Shah, with his strategic skills; and Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam’s astute Chief Minister and party mobiliser for the region.
The top BJP leadership set the pace and ensured comfortable margins in Tripura, despite mild anti-incumbency, and enabled the party to equal its 2018 tally in Nagaland.
It was the top BJP leadership that set the pace and ensured comfortable margins for the party in Tripura, despite mild anti-incumbency, and enabled it to equal its 2018 tally in Nagaland; in contrast, the BJP won just a couple of seats in Meghalaya. Its traditional rival, the Congress, came up with a poor show, a great fall from its position as the largest single party in Meghalaya in 2018. At that time, it had failed to cobble a majority and the nimbler Conrad Sangma and partners, including the BJP, stitched a coalition together.
The Congress’ failure to lift much of Meghalaya out of poverty and the abysmal education and health indices, despite being the party with the longest stint in office, may have played a role in the choice of voters.
While the BJP has much to rejoice about, there are other aspects to the elections which also need to be highlighted. One is that home-grown, state-centric and regional parties with local focus but a national commitment continue to attract support and hold their own despite the growing pull of the BJP.
This is the second revelation which holds true in all three states: in Meghalaya, all parties fought on their own without a pre-poll alliance. The result is a hung legislature, a familiar situation in the state which has rarely seen a single-party majority in four decades. Regional and statewide parties alone in Meghalaya won about two-thirds of the seats, with the BJP and Congress far behind. In Nagaland, a pre-poll alliance between the NDPP and BJP has led to a handsome victory, while in Tripura, the BJP eased to a facile win but found a scion of the former royal family and his statewide party as its most formidable adversary.
The third takeaway — at least from Tripura — is that better visible infrastructure and services make an impact on the public. Another phenomenon is the issue of filling the space ceded by the decline of the Congress.
The National People’s Party of Conrad Sangma, who was CM in the last Assembly, is the largest single party in Meghalaya and is likely to form a coalition with its old partners, the United Democratic Party, another local party in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills which did surprisingly well, and the BJP. The Trinamool Congress under former CM Mukul Sangma campaigned on the plank of cash doles, denouncing the border deal with Assam, and made inroads into the Garo Hills. The Trinamool had delivered a shock to the Congress in 2021, taking away most of its legislators.
In Tripura, although the BJP retained power reasonably comfortably, thanks to the delivery of services on the ground, royal scion Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma and his Tipra Motha, emerged as a challenger. This underlined the re-emergence of regional concerns that could force the state BJP to also focus on local issues. Significantly, although Debbarma won in his party’s stronghold of the Tribal Autonomous District Council, routing the older Indigenous Peoples’ Front of Tripura and besting the BJP there, he failed to woo the Bengali majority, mistrustful of his demand for a separate state. This shows the limits of his appeal, although he combined energy with a wicked sense of humour.
The region’s gender equality is often touted, although its maternal mortality rates (MMR) and infant mortality (IMR) data paint a grim picture of women’s health; these are among the worst in India. Tripura and Meghalaya have a poor IMR record, while Nagaland fares better than Meghalaya in its MMR. Meghalaya’s MMR is among the poorest in the country.
While these issues did not figure significantly in the campaigns, history was made when the NDPP’s Hekani Jakhalu and Salhoutuonuo Kruse became the first women in Nagaland’s 60-year history to win seats in the Assembly. Perhaps they could make gender issues, health and education a priority.
Allegations of corruption against ruling party and Opposition members failed to make much dent. In Meghalaya, demands for the resumption of risky ‘rat hole’ mining in which people slither into subterranean tunnels to extract coal were louder than the demands to stop it. Other issues such as Inner Line Permit (ILP) for non-tribals, the inclusion of Khasi and Garo languages in the Sixth Schedule, better tourism processes and disputed border pockets with Assam figured in campaigns but did not galvanise public opinion.
In Nagaland, the winning pre-poll alliance meant that the key issue remained the resolution of the vexed Naga issue. Talks between the Indian Government and Naga leaders have continued for over 25 years despite the Framework Agreement of 2015. Governments, interlocutors and Governors have changed but the peace process remains incomplete. How the Centre and the state government meet this challenge will be a test of the new government. The Oting incident in which 13 villagers died in a botched Army ambush did not ignite the poll campaign.
The eastern Naga hills’ demand for a separate state and boycott of the polls was diminished after its leaders accepted a Central offer proposing a council for the area while retaining the integrity of Nagaland. This would be seen as part of its strategy to protect its sensitive borders with Myanmar.
In Tripura, the key issues before the BJP government will be better governance and infrastructure and improved delivery of services as well as reaching out to the restive hills under the Tipra Motha.
There is unlikely to be a repeat of that unique situation in Meghalaya and Nagaland where at one point the Opposition ceased to exist because the legislators had simply walked over to the treasury benches!
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