The Bharatiya Janata Party’s debacle in Karnataka loomed large over a meeting on Sunday of the North East Democratic Alliance – a BJP-led coalition of local parties from all states in the region.
BJP president Amit Shah was the chief guest at the meeting that was attended by several senior leaders of the alliance including the chief ministers of Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Manipur. Most speakers at the event denounced the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance in Karnataka.
Shah himself took a dig at the Congress. “For the Congress, the North East was only a way to make up the numbers in the Parliament,” he said. “Earlier the North East was notorious for corruption, but now under [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi, it is well on its way to be one of the most developed parts of the country.”
No ‘briefcase politics’
With 104 seats in the 224-member Assembly, the BJP was the single-largest party in Karnataka but fell short of a majority when results were announced on Tuesday. The Congress-Janata Dal (Secular), which had stitched together a post-poll alliance and had the required numbers, moved the Supreme Court when the state governor invited the BJP’s BS Yeddyurappa to form the government instead. He was swiftly sworn in on Thursday and given 15 days to prove majority. The Supreme Court’s intervention led to the trust motion being advanced to Saturday, and to Yeddyurappa’s resignation as chief minister. The BJP has said that the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance was antithetical to the people’s mandate.
However, its detractors have pointed out that the saffron party had acted similarly in many cases in the past, including in the two North Eastern states of Manipur and Meghalaya. The saffron party also faced allegations of horse-trading in Manipur.
In what seemed to be an implicit reference to these charges, Shah affirmed at the meeting that unlike the Congress, the BJP did not indulge in “briefcase politics” in the North East.
The Manipur threat
The meeting of the North East Democratic Alliance assumed added significance in the wake of the Congress’s decision – albeit symbolic – to approach the governors of Manipur and Meghalaya to lay claim to form the government in both states by virtue of being the single-largest party. This is the justification the BJP had provided in Karnataka, when the governor invited it to form the government over the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) combine.
The situation is precarious for the BJP particularly in Manipur, where it is ruling in alliance with the Naga People’s Front among other parties. The BJP broke a long-running alliance with the Naga People’s Front in Nagaland during February’s Assembly elections in the state – and the party is no longer officially a part of the North East Democratic Alliance. If Naga People’s Front MLAs withdraw support to the BJP in Manipur, its government may be at risk of losing its majority.
But the four members of the Naga People’s Front from Manipur attended the meeting on Sunday. “We have no plans to leave the government at the moment,” said one of the legislators, requesting anonymity. “Even the party high command has asked us to stay.”
Dissent in Assam
Other concerns also plague the alliance. One of the BJP’s allies in Assam, the Asom Gana Parishad, has struck a discordant note over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which aims to make certain crucial changes to the Citizenship Act of 1955. The party’s chief Atul Bora even broached the subject during the meeting, insisting that the party was “strongly opposed” to the bill, which he said was a threat to the indigenous people of the state.
While Shah did not directly refer to the issue, he said that the BJP respected the region’s cultural diversity and “acknowledged the rights of the people of the North East over its resources”. The North East Democratic Alliance, he said, was not just a political coalition, but a “geo-cultural alliance”.
Assam minister and convener of the alliance, Himanta Biswa Sarma, emphasised that the alliance consisted of “equal partners” and that there was “no small or big party here”. “We had got the numbers by ourselves in Tripura, but we took along with us the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura,” he said referring to the tiny north eastern state, where the BJP’s nascent alliance with the tribal party, made after the February elections, has already seen some trouble.
“For the first time in history, as many as seven of eight states in the North East have come under one political banner,” said Sarma. “Never in the North East’s political history has the region been represented by such a cohesive political force.”