ELECTIONS IN NORTHEAST: FIRST PIT STOP BEFORE 2024

Polstrat
7 min readMay 25, 2023

The original version of the article was published on 17th February 2023 in “The Daily Guardian”

On 18th January 2023, the Election Commission of India announced the schedule for elections to Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura. Source: Hindustan Times

In the first set of elections in 2023, the Northeastern states of Tripura, Nagaland, and Meghalaya will be going to polls in the months of February and March. Tripura voted yesterday and Nagaland and Meghayala are due to vote on 27th February. Election results for 60 constituencies of each Assembly are expected on 2nd March.

The political dynamics in the north east have changed markedly in the last few years. From the dominance of Congress rule, the political arch has shifted towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and regional parties. Demands for separate states, autonomous tribal areas, and better infrastructure and basic amenities still rule election talk across the region. This time around, the alliances which helped form governments in two of the three states in 2018 have gone for a toss. The year sets the stage for the crucial 2024 Lok Sabha elections — each election will be viewed in the shadow of the impending fight for the Parliament next year.

MEGHALAYA: TROUBLE IN PARTNERSHIPS AMIDST TMC’S RISE

In Meghalaya, waiting to vote on 27th February, the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance government led by the Nationalist People’s Party (NPEP) with partners like the BJP and other regional players is already broken. The BJP has accused its alliance partner of large-scale corruption and both parties have decided to go solo this time. Allegations of corruption and mismanagement of law and order are prominent electoral issues. However, analysts predict that hyper-local issues will govern voter choice in a state where a candidate’s personal following reigns supreme over party affiliation. The INC, which emerged as the single largest party in 2018
lost all ground when its former CM Mukul Sangma and 11 other Congress legislators defected to the Trinamool Congress (TMC). The party is in dire straits, finding it difficult to field candidates on many seats. This, on the other hand, has been fortunate for the TMC which became the principal opposition party overnight after the defection and is now focusing on 24 seats in the Garo Hills region, the home turf of Former CM Mukul Sangma.

In 2018, of the 59 seats that went to polls with an 87.7 per cent voter turnout, Congress emerged as the single largest party with 21 seats and a 28.5 per cent vote share. The NPEP, which came in second place, managed to trump Congress to form the government with its 19 seats with a vote share of 20.6 per cent. The United Democratic Party secured six seats and 11.7 per cent votes with the remaining vote share split between smaller regional parties. The BJP opened its account in the Christian-majority state with a two-seat victory and a post-poll alliance with NPEP helping it be a part of the state government. As a result of the four-cornered fight where the NPEP, the BJP, Congress, and the TMC go alone into the polls, the elec-
tions might lead to a hung assembly for the state, throwing open the floor for post-poll alliances.

TRIPURA: BJP-IPFT VS CONGRESS-LEFT

From Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) rule in 2013, the power
shifted to the BJP in 2018 as the party won 35 of the 59 seats that went to
polls. With this, Tripura became the only state in the northeast where the BJP won a simple majority on its own. Signifying the party’s continuing support in the electorate, the CPI-M came in second place with a vote share of 42.22 per cent, just 1.37 per cent shy of the BJP’s 43.59 per cent votes, but
secured only 16 seats. The BJP rode on the anti-incumbency sentiment and
was successful in securing the tribal votes by forming an alliance with the
Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT). The IPFT won eight seats and
a 7.5 per cent vote share. The Indian National Congress (INC) lost all ground in the state in 2018. From ten seats in 2013, it dropped to zero in 2018 while its vote share recorded a freefall from 36.5 per cent in 2013 to just 1.8 per cent in the previous election.

This time around, the opposition is aiming to corner the BJP on its failed promise to fulfil the demand for a Greater Tipraland and its failure in bringing the required development to the state. Tribal politics is challenging the BJP to repeat its 2018 victory with new political players in the fray, while the demands of the public remain the same. Former Congress president and Tripura royal family member Pradyot Debbarma formed Tipra Motha in 2021, a new tribal political party. The party promises to bifurcate Tripura into two new states, rekindling the demands for a Greater Tipraland. The ruling BJP, on the other hand, is facing a challenge on multiple fronts. Three of its district presidents defected to the Janata Dal (United) recently. Entry of Tipra Motha and rekindled demands for Greater Tipraland will likely affect the BJP’s ability to secure tribal votes for a second time. The party is also facing immense anti-incumbency and might not be able to repeat its 2018 victory with or without former or new allies. Alliance politics in the state this time have stunned analysts and the public alike. The Left, led by the CPI-M and the Congress, have united to defeat the BJP. Additionally, the BJP and IPFT have decided to stick together, in spite of the bruised state of the alliance.

SHIFTING ALLIANCE AND DEMAND FOR A SEPARATE NAGA STATE

In 2018, 60 seats went to polls in Nagaland. With the help of the BJP as a minor partner, former CM Neiphiu Rio formed a government under the banner of his new outfit, the National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP). The NDPP came in second place with 17 seats and a 25.3 per cent vote share while its pre-poll alliance partner BJP secured 12 seats and a 15.3
per cent popular vote. The NDPP-BJP alliance upstaged the Naga People’s Front (NPF), the largest party after the elections with a 38.78 per cent popular vote and 26 seats. State politics witnessed a tectonic shift in 2021. At first, the NPF joined the NDPP-led government in September 2021; later in 2022, 21 NPF MLAs defected to NDPP. As a result, the state was left with no credible opposition ever since.

The landmark Naga Peace Accord signed between the centre and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (IsakMuivah) (NSCN-IM) in 2015 changed the contours of the Naga issue in the state. However, the situation was back to a logjam in 2019 over NSCN-IM’s demand for a separate Naga
flag and a constitution. Other parties to the Naga issue such as the Eastern Nagaland Peoples’ Organisation (ENPO) and the Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) are blaming the centre for non-fulfilment of the promises made under the 2015 Accord, attempting to use the issue as a rallying cry
to mobilise people against the NDPP-BJP government. The NDPP-BJP will continue their alliance in 2023, but the seat-sharing agreement leaves no room for NPF. The Congress, which failed to open its account in 2018, is aiming to benefit from both the Naga issue and raising other key concerns such as unemployment, power shortages, and delays in constructing a medical college.

SHADOW ON 2024 LOK SABHA

Elections in all three states are witnessing a shift in alliances as each political outfit aims to make the best of ongoing developments for their own political gain. From unlikely alliances in Tripura to the decimation of opposition in Nagaland, the 2023 elections will have a deep impact on the region’s politics in the long run. The three states together send five MPs to the Lok Sabha. While it may be small numerically, what happens here will leave a mark on the politics of the region before the 2024 elections. For the BJP, winning the elections individually or through alliances is a matter of maintaining its hold on state assemblies. Four of the party’s 11 CMs come from the north east. It seeks to return to power in Tripura and win in Meghalaya, both on its own but is relying on regional outfits in Nagaland. For the Congress, as has been the case for some elections now, the party lost its stronghold across the region and the states and is now fighting for survival. From unlikely alliances in Tripura to fighting alone in Meghalaya, the party’s weak position might only allow it to dent the prospects of other parties across the three states. The north east continues to face pressures from identity politics, border conflicts, and insurgency and in spite of its numerically small political influence, has an influential impact on national politics. For now, elections in three states appear to be dominated by local outfits with state-level and tribal-identity issues hegemonising the electoral fight.

Damini Mehta/New Delhi

From Polstrat, a non-partisan political consultancy which aims to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.

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Polstrat

Polstrat is a political consultancy aiming to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.