Amit Shah's Secret Sauce In BJP's Northeast Strategy

Amidst the din of several charged debates this week, one important political event missed the spotlight. Early this week, NEDA or the North East Democratic Alliance, a brainchild of the BJP's Northeast politics in-charge Ram Madhav and led by the party's President Amit Shah and convener Himanta Biswa Sarma, met for its second conclave in New Delhi. Five sitting chief ministers - the BJP now has governments in five out of eight Northeastern states - party presidents and nominees of 11 different political parties from the region attended.   

NEDA is by far one of the most interesting political experiments being undertaken by the BJP. This political alliance is quite unique because it represents a region with more than 250 communities and 180 different dialects. It is unique because it incorporates so many mutually divergent interests in one fold that no other political formation can boast of. It is unique because in spite of such diversity, NEDA reflects societal anger against the status quo-ism and inaction of previous regimes mostly dominated by the Congress party.

NEDA has brought together allies as diverse as the Naga People's Front (NPF), which completely dominates the politics and assembly of Nagaland, and the Ganashakti Party (GP), a regional party of Assam whose President was recently elected as its lone MLA in the state and that too on a BJP ticket. On being asked why he is not merging the party with the BJP, given that he is a legislator of that party, GP chief Ronoj Pegu said he believes the interests of the Mishing tribe that his party represents are best served through the BJP at the state level and through GP at the autonomous council level.

What has been symptomatic of the Northeast has also been true of its politics. Mainstream India hardly understands the complexities of the issues of the north east because of its peripheral and complex nature. It is also because most mainstream political leaders have not invested enough time and energy to understand the subtle complexities of the region. For this reason, the north east has perpetually remained an enigma both socially and politically.

NEDA dreams to change this. It hopes to bring the rest of India closer to the Northeast by presenting a united and a stronger voice at national forums. NEDA embodies all complexities in one fold and makes it effective for the north eastern parties to find representation in NDA meetings. NEDA has steadily grown into a force that strengthens the local politics of the region.

One of the most important decisions announced at this week's meeting was to open a think tank that would work closely with NEDA to deliberate over and advise the central government on issues that concern the North East. For instance, the Northeast has to be an effective partner of the central government to prioritise its Act East initiatives.

Act East implies different things for different states in the region - for Meghalaya it is Act South to find new motorable routes to Bangladesh; for Tripura it is Act West to improve its trade with Bangladesh through the Chittagong port; for Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, Act North is critical for India's geostrategic interests. NEDA can offer foreign policy aid and advice to these states in order to better engage with five neighbouring countries.

NEDA's think tank could also focus on the rampant illegal migration and the corresponding social unrest in regions of Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Assam. Forging a socio-politico-economic think tank to work closely with a political conglomeration for the rapid development of the region is certainly a new and exciting chapter in changing times.

The vibrancy of the NEDA meet throws up an interesting question - what is the secret sauce of the BJP, an ultra-nationalist political force, to form elaborate and long lasting alliances with regional satraps and parties that are borderline separatists? This question has been in my mind for the past three years and the best explanation to this can be the inherent flexibility in the short term tactics of the party as long as its long term objectives of national integration are met. Most of the current BJP leadership in the Northeast comprises individuals who are not trained RSS functionaries rising up the ranks. However, it is interesting to see how these leaders, who mostly represent sub-regional instincts, uniquely fit into the national integration scheme of the RSS and BJP.  

The BJP had for long remained a political pariah in the region. It was seen as a party of North Indians and for North Indians. Its footprints never grew beyond the cow belt region. However, in the current metamorphosis that the BJP is undergoing, expanding its political footprints has been part of its core ambitions. This transformation has allowed the party to adapt itself to newer cultures, newer belief systems and to newer societal ways of life - though all aspects remain distinctively Indian. This new BJP is therefore being welcomed with open arms by tribal Christians too - something that was unthinkable a few years ago.

The BJP has now emerged as a truly national political party with its government in five Northeastern states. The party understands the sensitivity of the politics in the region. It respects the fragility in the cultural and political worldview of the Northeast and therefore enjoys an amicable relationship with many local regional parties. In order to strengthen itself and the local politics of the region, the BJP is collaborating with many of these regional parties in the NEDA alliance. This co-existence does not signal a lack of confidence; it is a sign of deep mutual trust and understanding, of forging common bridges in order to achieve common objectives.

NEDA, for now, is in the eye of a gigantic political storm in the Northeast. This political storm has been created and is being led by the common people of the Northeast who have been at the receiving end of perverse leadership inimical to their developmental interests, for far too long. Amidst tectonic political shifts in the state, how NEDA fulfils the aspirations of the Northeastern Indians is being looked at with anticipation.

(Rajat Sethi is a public policy graduate from Harvard Kennedy School and Political Advisor to the Chief Minister of Manipur)

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