Sunday, March 26, 2017

New Dawn

Historically, with the exception of Nagaland and Sikkim, India's much neglected Northeast has been the pocket borough of the Congress, as the largest organized political force in the area. And while the planes of Assam have been contested in the past, the hill states there have been more or less forgotten by everyone else. Until Amit Shah became the President of the BJP, that is, when the region finally came up on the political radar. And while the BJP did have a token presence as a junior alliance partner with the NPF in Nagaland, and a small presence in Arunachal Pradesh, it was the defection of Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam that seems to have really turned the tide around for the party in the strategic region that was once abandoned by Pandit Nehru after the Chinese invasion.

Of these new territories for the BJP, Manipur perhaps represents the real opportunity that the party has in the region. In 2012, the party did not even exist there - it had zero legislators - and the CM Ibobi Singh had no opposition in the non-Naga districts (where the NPF's writ ran large). Then, almost out of nowhere, the BJP appeared on posters and rallies, with top party leaders campaigning in the state. BJP President Amit Shah himself came after the BJP office in Imphal was attacked to warn Ibobi Singh of consequences in the elections. Still, after all that, the Congress did come within striking distance of its fourth government there, at 28 seats, with 31 needed for a majority. But the genius of the new Modi-Shah BJP, quite unlike the previous Advani-Vajpayee BJP, is to never stop fighting.

With 21 seats and the largest vote share - a radical departure from being non-existent just one election back - the BJP's Ram Madhav (the architect of the BJP-PDP alliance in Jammu and Kashmir) and Sarma got the BJP's traditional partners - the NPF (with which it has an alliance in Nagaland), the NPP (whose late founder, Purno Sangma, was the NDA's Presidential candidate in 2012), and the LJP (which is part of the ruling NDA at the Center) - as well as a few independents, to cobble up a majority, thus making N Biren Singh the new CM and inaugurating the first BJP-led government in the state. Quite a riveting finish for a party that once refused to even try to form a government without a majority of its own (which it rarely won)! With this, the BJP is in government in four of seven states in the region, with Pawan Chamling's SDF in Sikkim supporting the NDA, thus leaving only Meghalaya and Mizoram.

Two important developments from this result. First, now that the NPF is in government in Manipur, the endless blockades there have to end. The Union Cabinet has recently approved the construction if a new highway to the state, but till the time that materializes, the BJP both in Imphal and Delhi will have to work to prevent more crippling blockades that are thoroughly inhuman and illegal. How the BJP is going to placate Meiti interests while simultaneously being in a coalition with the NPF will be Biren Singh's biggest headache, and the party is clearly not out of the woods yet.

And second, Irom Shamila, the Iron Lady of Manipur, who broke her fast to contest against Ibobi Singh, came a huge cropper with just 90 votes, less than the NOTA votes. While many in the right wing have panned her for being the darling of the Delhi establishment, the fact is that she was fighting for a just cause - AFSPA in Manipur has been in place for over half a century, and has not worked, and a political solution to the situation there has to be found sooner than later if we are to avoid losing another generation of Indians there. And yet, her defeat at the hustings despite being the icon of the civil society in the state shows just how badly she miscalculated her popularity. All is not lost - she can still spend the next five years doing community work, avoiding the shoot-and-run politics of Arvind Kejriwal. Politics is hard work and not for the faint-hearted. Unfortunately, she seems to have given up already. Still, we wish her luck in whatever she works towards next. Perhaps, she should retreat into her personal life now. She has been through enough for one lifetime. 

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