The Sangh Parivar’s campaign in poll-bound states in the North East will get into full swing this weekend. On Friday, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat will arrive in Tripura for a three-day visit, during which he will address a rally. The following day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will hold a rally in Meghalaya, after which four legislators, including two from the Congress, are expected to join the Bharatiya Janata Party. The party’s national general secretary Ram Madhav has said that they are eyeing an alliance of “like-minded parties” in the state.

Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland go to polls early next year. In Nagaland, the prospect of a final settlement to resolve the Naga movement for secession has overshadowed elections, with the ruling Naga People’s Front and other groups calling for the polls to be postponed until a pact is signed. Besides, the BJP has been a part of the ruling Democratic Alliance of Nagaland for over a decade now.

In Tripura and Meghalaya – which are ruled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress – the BJP is making a determined bid for power. It currently has no legislators in the Meghalaya Assembly while in Tripura, it acquired six MLAs who defected from the Trinamool Congress in August. The BJP does not have a record of governance in either state. It enters uncharted territory here.

Common factors

Certain features have been common to recent electoral contests in the North East. Tripura and Meghalaya are not likely to be exceptions.

First, politics in most North Eastern states, which have large tribal populations and special protections to preserve indigenous cultures, is shaped by the fear of outsiders, both from within and outside national borders. In recent years, the spectre of the outsider has largely been conflated with so-called illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in these border states. Meghalaya, for instance, saw an agitation against Aadhaar, the 12-digit unique identity number, last month largely because of fears that it would legitimise such migrants.

Second, impoverished states in the North East, dependent on Central funds, tend to lean towards the party in power in Delhi. Assam, Manipur and Meghalaya have been Congress fiefdoms for years, shored up by largesse from the Centre. As the party in power at the Centre changed in 2014, the governments in Assam and Manipur also switched from the Congress to BJP-led coalitions. It remains to be seen if Congress-ruled Meghalaya conforms to this pattern. And if Tripura, a bastion of the Left for decades, also leans towards the Centre.

Third, elections in the recent past have usually been a game of defections. In Assam, the BJP, which had few prominent leaders, gained by importing well-known Congress faces such as Himanta Biswa Sharma. In Manipur, it acquired a simple majority after post-poll defections by Trinamool Congress and Congress legislators.

Defections have already begun in this bout. After six Trinamool Congress legislators switched sides in August, the BJP gained a toehold in the Tripura Assembly for the first time. In Meghalaya, it is already eyeing Congress members and independents. There are other cross-party migrations as well: 1,000 Congress workers who had joined the Trinamool Congress in Tripura went back to their original party on December 8, while erstwhile Congress leaders swell the ranks of the National People’s Party in Meghalaya.

Fourth, as in Assam and Manipur, the BJP is eyeing a regional coalition of indigenous parties as it tries to overturn long-entrenched governments. In spite of the similarities, the shape of the political contests promises to be different in the two states.

BJP president Amit Shah (centre) and party general secretary Ram Madhav (second from left) at a public meeting in Tripura in 2015. (Credit:

Tripura: A bi-polar contest

Will Chief Minister Manik Sarkar and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) be able to win the elections for the fifth consecutive time? This is the big question in Tripura. Sarkar’s government has usually returned to power with large majorities: it currently holds 51 seats in the 60-member Assembly. It is credited with containing militancy in the state and getting the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act – which gives security forces sweeping powers to search, arrest and open fire to maintain order, with a degree of immunity from prosecution – withdrawn from Tripura by investing heavily in a local police force. The Left has deep roots in Tripura and has traditionally had a strong tribal vote base, dominating the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council, which administers the tribal areas of the state.

But lately, the government has been under siege. Old demands for a separate tribal state called Twipra land, covering the areas of the autonomous district council, or two-thirds of Tripura, have emerged again. Protests held by the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, which is spearheading the demand, have turned violent over the past year. With these assertions, old fault lines between the state’s tribal and Bengali populations, so carefully papered over by the government for years, are starting to show again.

Sensing opportunity, Opposition parties are believed to have backed these tribal assertions. Tripura has been on the radar of three other national parties: the Congress, which alternated in government with the communist party until 1998, the Trinamool Congress that is eager to expand beyond West Bengal, and the BJP, which is spreading across the North East. The Congress won 10 seats in the 2013 Assembly elections but lost ground when it tied up with the Left Front for the 2016 Assembly elections in neighbouring Bengal. It is showing signs of a fightback, but it may be too little too late. The Trinamool Congress, hit by defections, has also receded.

That leaves the BJP, which has already declared its intention to focus on Tripura after the Gujarat elections, where the results will be out on Monday. The party has made steady gains in vote share: from 1.5% in the 2013 elections, it managed 8% in the autonomous district elections in 2015. It has already forged a pre-poll alliance with the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra.

So far, Tripura is shaping up to be a bi-polar contest between the Left and the BJP, with a constellation of local parties in the mix.

Meghalaya: A fragmented vote

Meghalaya reflects a fragmented electoral map. The Congress won 29 seats out of 60 in 2013, and formed a coalition with 14 independent legislators and two from the Nationalist Congress Party. Unlike Manipur and Assam, which had long-term Congress governments earlier, Meghalaya has a history of unstable coalitions. This coalition has seen dissidence within, as Congress and Nationalist Congress Party legislators defect to the BJP and the National People’s Party. Earlier this year, the Nationalist Congress Party had voiced its intention to go it alone in these polls.

But the Opposition is divided as well. The National People’s Party, formed by the late PA Sangma in 2012, and the United Democratic Party are part of the North Eastern Regional Political Front that had supported the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But it remains to be seen how far Ram Madhav’s plan to form an alliance of “like-minded parties” succeeds in Meghalaya. The National People’s Party, which is also a BJP ally at the Centre, has snubbed all talk of a pre-poll alliance so far. The United Democratic Party swings between expressing willingness to work with the BJP and predicting that a coalition of regional players will replace the Congress and its allies.

In a predominantly tribal state, the BJP also faces other limitations. Earlier this year, as the BJP banned the sale of cattle for slaughter in animal markets, party leaders in the West Garo Hills quit, linking the rules to an incipient beef ban. In spite of the BJP’s efforts to project itself as a party representing tribal interests, these tensions with local customs and habits remain.

Beneath the tug and pull of party politics lies a number of other concerns. First, ethnic sub-nationalisms still shape the state’s politics. Meghalaya was carved out of Assam in 1972, after a long agitation for a separate hill state. Within the new state, Khasi and Garo militancies took root, each demanding a separate homeland. While these armed movements have largely died out, the sub-nationalisms remain. Second, there is widespread corruption, which Opposition parties have already used as ammunition against the Congress.

Third, the state has seen a long-running battle over resources. On one level, there is an ongoing debate over who owns these resources, the indigenous communities or the state. On another, industries such as coal mining generated employment even as they gave rise to concerns about environmental degradation. Since the National Green Tribunal ban on mining in 2014, many jobs have been lost. The BJP now promises to lift the ban, with a view to win more seats in the Jaintia Hills, according to political commentators.

Both states present complex political landscapes with various interlocking identities and interests. It remains to be seen whether the BJP’s tried and tested tactic of forging “rainbow coalitions” and twinning indigenous interests with Hindutva works here.