India’s Northeast States Head to the Polls

By Kartikeya Singh —

Indian supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wearing masks with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s picture gesture as Modi speaks during a public rally ahead of state legislative assembly election at Ranagamati, south of Agartala, the capital of Tripura on February 8, 2018. Source: ARINDAM DEY/AFP/Getty Images.

This month, three of India’s “seven sisters” states (Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland), those located in the country’s ethnically distinct northeast, head to the polls. Situated in a region long plagued by security challenges and poor infrastructure, their stability and growth are critical for India’s ambitions to connect with Southeast Asia and their needs have bolstered India’s ties with neighboring Bangladesh. Importantly, the BJP went from being a non-player in the northeast five years ago, to becoming a domination regional force.

For the Modi machinery to expand its northeast footprint in these non-Hindu majority tribal states, the party will have to sell the prime minister’s image as a developer and reformer and keep the Hindu social elements backing the party at arm’s length. Below are some of the key issues important to the electorate that may affect the outcome of the state elections, perhaps pushing one if not more of the states closer towards the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) orbit.

Indian officials recruited for election duties carry Electronic Voting Machines ahead of Legislative Assembly elections in Meghalaya, in Nongpoh on February 26, 2018. Source: BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images.

Meghalaya

Rain-soaked Meghalaya, dominated by three distinct tribes has been under Congress Party control for a decade. The people here care about development and employment and want to stay far from the Hindutva ideology promoted by a segment of the BJP. So it was not a surprise that the Prime Minister Modi’s pitch to the public in the state recently focused on the central government’s assistance to help the state achieve its development goals – and the inability of the state government to properly use central government assistance.

Approximately 140,000 households still lack access to electricity despite the state having large hydro power potential. The hill state also suffers from serious connectivity issues, with most roads aside from the highway from the state’s capital of Shillong to Guwahati in Assam being riddled with potholes. And despite having some of the highest rainfall totals on the planet, many parts of the state still lack access to quality drinking water.

Yet without a proper foothold in the state and having been branded as the Hindu party of “mainland India,” the BJP is not an obvious choice to supplant Congress. The state’s anti-incumbency wave may actually sway to support the National People’s Party (NPP), which would be a first as fractious tribal rivalry has recently prevented the control of the state legislature by a regional party. However, locals are concerned that Hindutva elements could still find their way into power should the NPP in Meghalaya form a coalition with the BJP as it did in neighboring Manipur.

Nagaland

In nearby Nagaland, the prospects for the BJP to form a government will also be affected by its Hindutva image. In a state where Christian roots run deep, the Nagaland Baptist Church Council, the state’s most powerful religious body, recently issued a public letter to all political parties denouncing Hindutva and the party that is propagating it. Recognizing this, the Modi government and its ally, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NPDD) are selling a vision of development and a resolution to the long-running Naga conflict that has threatened the security of states in the region.

For its part, the Modi government deserves some credit for signing a historic peace accord with the Nagaland’s insurgent group Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) in 2015. Since then talks have not yielded a resolution to the problem which requires greater involvement of many stakeholders including neighboring states as the territorial integrity of the region would be affected. In the lead up to these recent elections, most local parties pressed, unsuccessfully to protest polling without a resolution to the conflict.

For Nagaland, a change in government that is supported by the BJP may help bring together the necessary northeastern states, several which now have BJP-controlled or coalition governments, that would ultimately have to negotiate an end to the Naga conflict.  Once the peace arrives, the jobs and development that the region so desperately needs could then be supported by the central government’s vision for connectivity in the region.

An Indian Reang refugee drops her postal ballot at a Naising Para Reang refugee camp polling station, 220 kilometers north of Tripura state capital Agartala, in November 2013. Source: ARINDAM DEY/AFP/Getty Images.

Tripura

While Tripura’s elections on February 18 had 47,000 first-time voters, the total turnout of 78.86 percent was much lower than the last assembly election of over 91 percent. Controlled by the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI – M) for the last five terms, voters in the state had two choices: maintain the status-quo of leadership which has a clean image with little progress in development, or give a new party, the BJP, a chance. Based on exit polls, the BJP is quite popular amongst the youth and the tribal population in the state. This is not surprising given that Tripura ranks highest amongst Indian states on unemployment. The BJP has seized this statistic and promised the state better opportunities through trade, tourism, training, and infrastructure that boosts the state’s physical and cyber connectivity. And Modi can likely deliver on many of these areas, due to his control over central government supported projects.

India watchers in North America will learn the outcome of the votes in Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Tripura on the evening of March 2, 2018.

Dr. Kartikeya Singh is deputy director and fellow of the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @KartikeyaSingh.

Kartikeya Singh

Kartikeya Singh

Dr. Kartikeya Singh is deputy director and fellow of the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.

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