The 2014 Lok Sabha elections flagged off the Bharatiya Janata Party’s charge in the North East, considered a Congress bastion till then. The party and its allies won 10 of the 24 seats in the region that year. Since then, it has only been on the ascendency. Five years later, it leads governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and Tripura and is a junior partner in Nagaland and Meghalaya.
This time, the BJP has scored an even bigger win. The saffron party and its coalition partners have notched up 17 of the 24 seats this time.
The march of the BJP
In Arunachal and Tripura, the BJP cruised to victory in all seats – two in each state. In Manipur, it gained one seat, previously held by the Congress. In Christian-majority Mizoram and Meghalaya, where the party has struggled to shed its Hindu party image, its alliance partners helped: the Mizo National Front won the solitary seat in Mizoram, the National People’s Party held on to Meghalaya’s Tura seat, considered to be a bastion of the Sangma family that helms the party, and its alliance partner Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party won in Nagaland.
The most magnificent of the BJP victories perhaps came in Assam, where it has had to contend not only with large-scale street protests over the Citizenship Bill just months before the poll but also an irate ally who left the government briefly. The Bill, a pet project of the party, seeks to ease citizenship rules for non-Muslim minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Although, the party’s vote share has declined – it is contesting fewer seats this time, courtesy its alliances – its overall tally in the state has increased to nine from the seven it had won in 2014.
The fall and fall of the Congress
On the other side of the fence, these elections seem to have further marginalised the Congress. The grand old party has lost ground nearly everywhere in the region.
Not many anticipated this scale of defeat for the Congress, particularly in Assam. The party, in the wake of protests against the bill, was expected to do well in the Assamese-majority Brahmaputra Valley, at least. Although its vote share has increased by more than 5% from last time and it has managed to win one extra seat in the Brahmaputra Valley, its overall tally stands where it was in 2014: three seats.
The party’s opposition to the bill seems to have also led to its defeat in Bengali-dominated Barak Valley’s Silchar, a seat it had won in 2014. “The polarisation because of the bill went completely against the Congress,” said Joydeep Biswas. “It seems very few Hindus voted for them in Silchar.”
The elusive Muslim vote in Assam
The Congress fared better in Muslim-dominated seats – but it did not always convert into victories as votes were split by the All India United Democratic Front, led by Badruddin Ajmal.
For instance, in Karimganj, the other seat in the Barak Valley, which has more than 50% Muslims, the BJP pipped the All India United Democratic Front by a slender margin. The Congress finished third.
In Dhubri, too, the party finished a distant second as the Ajmal reigned supreme yet again. It was only in Barpeta that the Congress finished first. Kaliabor and Nagaon, the other two seats that the Congress won, also have a formidable Muslim population.
But what explains the Congress’s failure to seal the deal? “People tend to vote for a winnable candidate,” said political scientist Monirul Hussain. “Besides Ajmal has done a lot of philanthropic work at a personal level.”
Others blamed it the Congress’s over-reliance on anti-Citizenship Bill sentiments. “The appeal of the anti-bill slogan was highly limited, disorganised and very temporary,” said historian Arupjyoti Saikia. “Majority of the rural voters were untouched by it.”