For the second time in six months, legislators of the ruling Naga People’s Front repaired to a resort in leafy Kaziranga National Park, in neighbouring Assam, to discuss a change of government in Nagaland. In February, the huddle had led to then Chief Minister TR Zeliang being ejected in favour of party veteran Shurozelie Liezietsu. This time, the tables were turned. The legislators wanted Liezietsu ousted and Zeliang reinstated as chief minister.

In the weeks leading up to it, 44 legislators had declared their support for Zeliang, who had made a quick and mysterious trip to Delhi. Liezietsu had challenged the governor’s order of a floor test in the Gauhati High Court, only to have his petition thrown out. The central executive committee of the Naga People’s Front had decided to break its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was supporting Zeliang and the rebel faction.

On Wednesday, Zeliang was sworn in as chief minister. On Friday, he won the floor test, with 47 of the 59 legislators supporting him. For now, Nagaland has a chief minister without a party. Soon after he was sworn in, Zeliang was expelled for six years, as punishment for “anti-party activities”. The Naga People’s Front, which has ruled at the head of a coalition since 2003, now seems split down the middle.

Across the North East, states seem to be entering a new era of instability. Will regional parties be a casualty of these political reconfigurations?

Changing colour

Several states are emerging from stable dispensations that have held for a decade or more. Take the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland, led by the Naga People’s Front, with the BJP and the Janata Dal (United) as partners. The alliance has held power since 2003. Until 2014, it was under the stewardship of former Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio. The Naga People’s Front had such pull that both the BJP and the Congress have joined it on the treasury benches since 2015, making Nagaland the only state in the country with no opposition.

But after the party won the Assembly election in 2013, it has seen internal rebellions and a pageant of chief ministers: from Rio to Zeliang to Liezietsu to Zeliang again. Both the party and the alliance withstood these rebellions, until now. This time, the Naga People’s Front accuses the BJP of using the governor to install its favoured candidate as chief minister. The future of the party looks uncertain, with most of its legislators having voted against the party whip in the recent floor test.

The Naga People’s Front has accused the central BJP leadership of using the governor to install its favoured candidate as chief minister in Nagaland. Photo credit: PIB

Elsewhere in the North East, states that were strongholds of the Congress are switching to the BJP. First, because states in the North East have traditionally tended towards the party in power at the Centre as it holds the promise of more funds and resources for the neglected region. Second, because the BJP itself has shown a keen interest in the region, forming the North East Democratic Alliance, a coalition of local parties spanning all seven states.

In little more than a year, the BJP has gone from no governments and little presence on the ground to holding power in three states in the region. Not all of these victories, however, reflect a sudden groundswell of support for the party.

In Arunachal Pradesh, the BJP’s central leadership was accused of using the governor’s office to unseat the Congress government, which had held power uninterrupted since 2007. The matter went to the Supreme Court, which reinstated the ousted Congress Chief Minister Nabam Tuki. But Tuki lost the floor test and party colleague Pema Khandu was appointed chief minister in July 2016. Within months, Khandu and a posse of legislators had migrated from the Congress to the People’s Party of Arunachal to the BJP. Arunachal now has a BJP government, with 47 of 60 the legislators.

In Assam, where Tarun Gogoi’s Congress had ruled for three straight terms, the BJP formed a “rainbow coalition” of “indigenous” parties before the election of 2016. It cornered 29.5% of the vote, less than the Congress’s 31%, but converted it into a sweeping victory. With 60 seats in the 126-member Assembly, and another seat won in a bye-election later, the party barely needed allies to form the government.

In the Manipur election earlier this year, the BJP shunted out the Congress’s Okram Ibobi Singh after three terms in power. Although the BJP won 21 seats to the Congress’s 28, days of intrigue and timely defections increased its tally. The party now has 31 legislators, while the Congress is left with 19.

Regional players

As the political map of the North East is redrawn, it may leave the regional players out in the cold.

Take Assam, which had seen multipolar contests after 1986, when the Asom Gana Parishad first stormed into power. Though the Congress ruled from 2001 to 2016, the electorate was divided among various ethnic parties – the All India United Democratic Front, which primarily represented Bengali Muslims, the Asom Gana Parishad, whose leaders had led the Assam Agitation of the 1980s, the Bodo People’s Front, which has its own fiefdom in the Bodo Territorial Area District.

These patchwork verdicts meant the regional parties played an important part in the state’s politics, either as part of governing coalitions or in the opposition. After the last election, however, the BJP barely needs their additional numbers in government and the Congress has crowded them out of the opposition. Assam could now enter a new era of bipolar contests between the Congress and the BJP.

In Manipur, too, the Congress is installed as chief opposition while smaller parties crowd around the BJP, which has the majority to rule on its own. This realignment could leave regional parties with a diminishing say in government.

Nagaland was one of the few states where the regional party did not play second fiddle in an alliance with a national party. But the Naga People’s Front has now gone on the defensive against the BJP.

In a meeting on Wednesday, the official party leadership warned churches about “communal elements” and “urged all national political parties to stop forthwith their unholy tendency to destabilise regional political party governments”. On Thursday, it accused the governor of acting illegally and then invited him to a “beef feast” – “Your Excellency knows Nagas are voracious meat eaters” – to celebrate the party’s break with the BJP.

Loss of diversity?

What would the shrinking of space for regional parties mean for the North East? Many of these parties have their roots in a history of ethnic nationalism, which often turned into militancy. They were formed as violent agitations were petering out.

The Assam Movement gave way to the Asom Gana Parishad in 1985. The Bodoland People’s Front grew out of the militant group Bodo Liberation Tigers, after it signed an accord with the government in 2003. The Naga People’s Front was founded in 2002, when all the major Naga underground groups had entered into ceasefires with the Indian state. The All India United Democratic Front addressed the particular vulnerabilities of Bengali Muslims in Assam.

Whatever their failings, these parties ensured that the identities and demands that had found violent expression were accommodated in a democratic set-up. Not only did they give representation to voices that felt they would never be heard, they made Indian democracy richer and more diverse. In the battle between national parties, these voices should not be lost.