February 15, 2020
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Splintered Sorority

Spotlight on Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura. More Coverage

Splintered Sorority
Splintered Sorority
Even as the media spotlight was on the Naga peace talks in Delhi, preparations began for the assembly elections in the three northeastern states—Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya. The most keenly watched of these elections on February 26 will be Nagaland's. Any progress in New Delhi's talks with the NSCN(I-M) will depend largely on who comes to power in Kohima. The key question is whether the Congress will return to power in Nagaland. And will it better its performance in Meghalaya where it's a coalition partner with the NCP? For the BJP, which has only a marginal presence in the region, any gain would be welcome. The Left Front (LF) is likely to retain power in Tripura where it has served two consecutive terms.

Here is what the political landscape looks like in the three states a week after polls were announced:

NAGALAND: In 1998, it was virtually a walkover for the Congress under chief minister S.C. Jamir—it had won 56 of 60 seats. All other parties, responding to a boycott call from Naga pressure groups, had not participated in the elections. But this time a contest is on the cards. A BJP-led front—the Nagaland Democratic Alliance—has been formed which, crucially, has the tacit support of the NSCN(I-M).

Several of Jamir's former colleagues have joined hands to try and oust him. Hokishe Sema, a former chief minister and now a BJP national executive member, will lead the Front. But it will not be an easy task. Jamir is known to be one of the shrewdest politicians in the state and this is his second consecutive term.

The anti-Jamir alliance was forged last week in Delhi after talks between the Nagaland People's Front (NPF) and state BJP leaders in the presence of nda convenor George Fernandes and BJP president Venkaiah Naidu. Senior NPF member and former Lok Sabha MP Imchalemba told Outlook: "We want to instal a government in Kohima favourable to the talks." Refuting charges of being hand-in-glove with the NSCN(I-M), Imchalemba said: "We are asking all underground groups to stay away from the election process. So, there's no question of taking their support." However, sources in the Congress point out that given the equation between the NSCN(I-M) and Jamir, the outfit's tacit support to the Opposition candidates can't be ruled out.

The BJP's convenor for the northeast, V. Satish, says the anti-Jamir front has a bright chance of coming up trumps in the polls given the positive atmosphere generated by the peace talks. But barely a week into its formation, differences have emerged in the front. The BJP is demanding "priority" over the NPF, an offshoot of the oldest Opposition party in the state, the United Democratic Front (UDF).

According to the NPF, seats should be shared on the basis of "support base". "Since we have a strong presence in all the 60 assembly constituencies of the state, we should get priority over other alliance partners," a senior NPF leader said. Likely outcome: An uphill task for the Congress and Jamir. But a divide in the Opposition may just allow him to scrape through.

MEGHALAYA: It must be the most chaotic political battlefield in the Northeast. The present chief minister, F.A. Khonglam, is the only one in the country who won his seat as an independent but is in power. Khonglam enjoys the support of the Congress and NCP.

In the 60-member house, the Congress has 16 MLAs while the NCP has 15. The rest of the seats are shared between the BJP (three seats) and half-a-dozen regional parties. In the past five years, almost all the MLAs have become ministers.

The Congress, headed by former chief minister, Salseng C. Marak, is going to field candidates in all 60 seats. Marak told Outlook: "Our effort will be to pull the state out of the culture of unstable coalitions. Unless you have a stable government, there cannot be any development." The Congress has ruled out any pre-poll alliance. But given the nature of Meghalaya politics, a post-poll tie-up cannot be ruled out.

The NCP, on the other hand, is leaving it to former Lok Sabha speaker P.A. Sangma to lead the charge. His influence in the Garo Hills is likely to help his party win seats. But aware of Meghalaya's political realities, the NCP says it's also open to post-poll tie-ups with smaller regional parties. Likely outcome: A hung assembly.

TRIPURA: It's a straight fight between the LF and Congress, which has tied up with the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT), led by former underground leader Bijoy Hrangkhawl. CM Manik Sarkar sees the elections as a fight between nationalistic forces and those supporting the secessionists.

The Congress will contest 42 seats, while the INPT will fight in 18 tribal-dominated constituencies. According to the LF, the INPT is a wing of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT). "The NLFT is funded by the ISI. And the Congress is aligning with a party that has close connections with the NLFT," Sarkar points out.

Tripura is the only state, besides West Bengal, that has voted the LF to power for two consecutive terms. The Left, which prides itself on having made rapid strides in rural development, has replaced seven sitting MLAs with fresh faces. The Congress accuses the LF regime of rampant corruption and says it's failed to uplift the tribals.

The Congress is, however, plagued by severe infighting with two former CMs and the present PCC chief locked in a fierce battle for tickets. Tripura is also likely to witness violence given the underground's role in the previous elections.

Likely outcome: LF will win, but with a reduced margin.

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