The Bharatiya Janata Party’s footprint has shrunk in the North East. The party and its allies have lost all six seats it contested in Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram – even though the four tribal hill states are governed either by the party or its allies.

Of the 25 seats in North East, the alliance picked up 16 compared to 19 in the 2019 election.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, however, held on to its ground in Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura, winning two seats in both states, as it had in 2019. In Assam, it increased its tally by two seats to win 11, with BJP picking up nine seats.

Observers attribute the loss to the BJP’s failure in containing the Manipur ethnic conflict, the fencing of the Indo-Myanmar border, the party’s anti-minority rhetoric and voters’ discomfort with the party’s Hindutva agenda. The party, they said, did not do enough to counter the perception that it was hostile to Christians.

Indeed, after the results, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma blamed religious sentiments for the alliance’s defeats in Nagaland, Manipur and Meghalaya.

“A particular religion openly went against the NDA in those areas,” he said. “That religion has tremendous followers. That made the difference.”

Nagaland and Meghalaya are predominantly Christian states. In Manipur, the two major tribal groups, Kuki-Zos and Nagas, are followers of Christianity.

Sarma’s statement has been bitterly criticised by parties from Nagaland and Meghalaya. Ardent Miller Basaiawmoit, chief of the Khasi nativist organisation, the Voice of People Party, said the Assam chief minister had no business interfering in Meghalaya’s affairs. The VPP has won one of the two Lok Sabha seats in the state.

Limits of aggressive Hindutva

Months before the elections, Hindutva groups had threatened missionary schools across Assam, demanding that they remove all “religious symbols” from the school premises, triggering condemnation from church bodies and political leaders from neighbouring states.

On February 9, a missionary school in Tripura had approached the police for protection after a right-wing group warned that it would organise a Saraswati Puja in the school.

In December 2022, a senior Assam police official had ordered a survey of churches and religious conversion in Assam, drawing criticism from Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma.

Former minister from Meghalaya, Lahkmen Ryumbui, pointed out that a bill brought in by the Himanta Biswa Sarma government that sought to criminalise “healing practices with ulterior motive” had been discussed in the Nagaland Assembly and condemned as anti-Christian.

An observer from Nagaland agreed. “The anti-Christian policies in Assam left the community jittery and worried across the region.”

Though smaller states in North East traditionally align with the party which rules in the Centre, an anti-BJP sentiment seemed to have prevailed.

“The reason why the politicians of the small states of North East India, especially those with a significant Christian population, align with the power at the Centre is transactional, not ideological,” said Sanjib Baruah, political scientist and expert on the region. “[But] aggressive Hindu nationalism is hitting its limits in these states.”

“The way Himanta Biswa Sarma and Modi have spoken about minorities is so disrespectful,” said Monalisa ‎Changkija, the editor of Nagaland Page. “That has had some effects among the tribals in the North East.”

The Myanmar conflict

While the BJP and its allies’ wipeout in Manipur is being seen as a response to its inability to bring peace to the region, the Centre’s hardline stance on the Myanmar border also appeared to have alienated voters.

In February, the Centre scrapped the Free Movement Regime which allowed a visa-free movement for people living within 16 km on either side of India and Myanmar’s shared border. Largely unfenced, the 1,643-km-long border runs along Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.

Since the Myanmar coup and civil war in 2021, Mizoram has played host to around 40,000 Myanmarese nationals who fled the violence. Several Kuki-Zo-Chin communities live across both sides of the border and have strong ethnic ties.

“The results show that the NDA has totally failed in three critical states along the Indo-Myanmar border – Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur,” said a Shillong-based author and political commentator.

All three major tribal communities who live along the Indo-Myanmar border – Nagas, Mizos and Kuki-Zos – have opposed and passed resolutions against the Centre’s policies, such as the fencing of the border and the push for a uniform civil code.

The ethnic conflict in Manipur also had a bearing in the poll results in Mizoram as Mizo shares ethnic ties with Kuki-Zos.

In Mizoram parliamentary constituency, the Zoram People’s Movement, which swept the Assembly polls last year, further consolidated its position in a state where the church and civil society play powerful roles.

The ZPM candidate Richard Vanlalhmangaiha defeated K Vanlalvena, the Rajya Sabha MP of Mizo National Front, with a margin of 68,288.

The ZPM got 42.45 % vote share, while Mizo National Front and Congress bagged 28.55% and 20 % respectively.

“The ZPM’s popularity remains despite the MNF candidate being very popular as a Rajya Sabha MP,” said a professor at Mizoram University who did not want to be identified. “The fact that MNF was a part of NDA didn't seem to work. People are scared of Hindutva, and disliked that even the names of laws are being changed to Hindi. What happens in Manipur and the BJP's role also contributed to the NDA’s loss.”

What results mean for Himanta

The NDA alliance in the North East is headed by BJP’s chief strategist in the region, Himanta Biswa Sarma.

Sarma has been attributed and credited to the dramatic rise of the saffron party in the North East, but some rumblings are already being heard within the party in Assam.

In Assam, the BJP’s vote share (37.43%) was marginally lower than that of the Congress (37.48%). More importantly, Congress leader Gaurav Gogoi went on to win from Jorhat, though Sarma had personally led the BJP campaign in the constituency, making it a prestige battle.

“The loss of Jorhat along with the defeat of BJP and its ruling allies in Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram is a big blow to him,” said ‎Changkija. “It shows that tribal people are not happy with the regional parties that align with the BJP.”

Meghalaya is governed by the BJP-ally National People’s Party, while BJP is part of the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party-led government Nagaland.

Some observers, especially in Christian states, held him responsible for the erosion of BJP and NDA votes.

However, some say, one election may not be a good reason to judge his overall performance.

“As the convenor of the alliance in North East, he has to take responsibility and it is demoralising for the party and allies.,” said political scientist Dhruba Pratim Sharma, who teaches at Gauhati University. “But the loss of four seats to Congress may not matter in the larger scheme of things.”

Naga stalemate

In Nagaland, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, the BJP’s partner and the party in power, failed to retain the lone seat.

For the first time since 1998, a Congress candidate won the popular mandate, despite the fact that the party has not had a single MLA since 2014.

Nagaland Congress chief S. Supongmeren Jamir beat the ruling NDPP candidate Chumben Murry by a margin of over 50,000 votes, garnering an impressive 52.7% vote share.

“The Congress was written off, but out of nowhere Jamir won despite the NDPP candidate being supported by all 60 MLAs and two incumbent MPs,” said ‎Changkija.

The continuing deadlock over the Naga political solution also appeared to contribute to the loss of the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party.

In Nagaland and Naga hills of Manipur, the Naga political solution refers to the long-running demand for a sovereign Naga homeland, which spawned India’s oldest insurgency.

In 2015, the Centre signed a framework agreement that was to lay the ground for a peace accord with the largest Naga militant group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah faction). Since then, there has been a deadlock over the separate Naga flag and Naga Constitution.

In Outer Manipur, the stalemate is believed to have had a factor in the defeat of the candidate of the Naga People's Front – another BJP ally – in Outer Manipur.

“It is hard not to see the results as a sign that the faith that the Nagas had in the ability of the BJP under Narendra Modi to bring about a peaceful and honorable end of the Naga conflict, is at breaking point,” said Sanjib Baruah.

The Congress candidate in Outer Manipur won despite the purported backing of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah faction) for the NPF candidate, Timothy Zemik.

“People have sent strong messages to the state and Centre government,” said Changkija.