The Manipur elections and the Congressisation of the BJP
In 2005 BJP President L.K. Advani complained of a Congressisation of his party. Though it was not Manipur he had in mind, the aftermath of the recently held elections in the state seems to confirm his worries. While consolidating its rule on a pan-Indian level, the BJP is aggressively expanding its base in the North-East. To do so they rely on a wide range of former Congress politicians and other turncoats socialised in a system once dominated by the Congress.
The Manipur scenario: Despite its 15 years in power, the Congress still managed to become the single largest party. However, its vote share is reduced and its number of seats declined from 42 to 28. This put it just short of the halfway-mark in the 60 member assembly. The BJP won 21 seats with a slightly higher vote share – impressive for a party that did not win a single seat in 2012, but perhaps not surprising in a region that depends heavily on financial transfers from the central government. Sensing an opportunity to form a government the BJP quickly selected N. Biren Singh as its chief minister candidate. He is a former Congress-wallah, and was minister the old ‘satrap’ Iboni Singh’s government as well as his close aide. He left the party just months before the election – presumably because he lost his ministerial berth earlier.
In any hung assembly the role of smaller parties increases. The BJP immediately sought the support of two regional parties with four MLAs each. The Naga People’s Front (NPF) had already positioned itself clearly against the Congress while it had also recently absorbed the whole Congress group in neighbouring Nagaland. The BJP also approached the National People’s Party (NPP), led by Conrad Sangma. He is the son of P.A. Sangma, distinguished Congress leader until he joined the National Congress Party (NCP, a Congress off-shot). He later set up the NPP, though his daughter remained with the NCP and was made minister in Congress-dominated UPA II.
Winning over these allies is often credited to the groundwork of Himanta Biswa Sarma. He was a close aide of Tarun Gogoi, former Congress CM of Assam, and left Congress in 2015. Sarma used previous connections such as an NPF-BJP coalition in Nagaland to bring together regional parties that despite conflicting interests saw the Congress as their main opponent. Sarma established the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) as a regional equivalent of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance and subsequently became its convener. Described as a ‘wheeler-dealer’ for his new party, his brokering skills apparently paid off.
Manipur after the election is not just about building coalitions with regional parties; there is also a muddier side. The eight NPF and NPP MLAs plus the lone Lok Janshakti Party MLA, an ally of the BJP at the centre, were insufficient to cross the crucial 30-mark. Soon rumours arose that independent MLA Ashab Uddin had been kidnapped, by whichever side tried to keep him or win him. The lone Trinamool Congress MLA crossed over to the BJP while his party president, Mamata Banerjee, is a long-time opponent. All of it smacks of horse-trading – often considered a hallmark of a Congress-system with its mixture of carrot and stick and each side trying to strike the best possible deal. The fact that both Ashab Uddin and Congress MLA Th. Shyamkumar, who jumped ship, were immediately rewarded with cabinet posts seems to confirm it. Particularly the latter case raises serious questions about the effective operation of the anti-defection law.
The situation after the results had been declared was volatile. In such a scenario the Governor, who invites a party to form a government, takes center-stage. Fortunately for the BJP Governor Najma Heptullah, being one of its members, was ‘sympathetic’. Belonging to an illustrious political family, Heptullah had served as Minister for Minority Affairs in the Modi Government. Again she had had an even longer career in the Congress. Alongside the new Chief Minister, the Convener of NEDA, and others, she belongs to a class of politicians socialised in the Congress that now occupy central positions in a Modi-Shah system – whose aim it is to take over as many governments as possible. This high concentration of Congress alumni in key BJP positions may be unique to Manipur. Other factors did also play a role – N. Biren Singh became Chief Minister because another BJP strongman did not win his constituency. But the tendency is certainly not limited to Manipur as Arunachal Pradesh has shown where Cong MLAs desert their party en masse.
To Advani Congressisation indicated a style of politics that included corruption, factionalism and infighting rather than adherence to an ideology. Given the current expansion strategy of the BJP his warning seems to have taken a backseat – mirroring Advani’s own position nowadays. Instead, the BJP leadership has mastered the ‘art’ of forming governments in a way long considered a Congress trademark. It is the out-manoeuvred Grand Old Party that now alleges ‘murder of democracy’ and the label ‘party with a difference’ may rather be claimed by Irom Sharmila’s PRJA – though voters remained indifferent to it.
Congressisation of the BJP in Manipur combines style and staff. A ‘C-team’ in the BJP may be required to broaden its base and capture power in states where the BJP has been rather weak so far. It does not mean, however, that the BJP and its mentor, the RSS, do not pursue a simultaneous strategy of Saffronization – with a possible impact on or religious polarization in conflicts between plain and hill people or (Hindu) Meiteis and (Christian) Kukis or Nagas. The BJP ‘cadre’ certainly has changed a little. And when PM Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah postulate the ultimate goal of a Congress-mukt Bharat – a Congress-free India – they might conveniently overlook that some Congress lives on within.
Uwe Skoda, Professor, Aarhus University