An organisational reshuffle in the ranks of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Northeast India is in the works, according to informed sources in the party. The BJP’s internal organisational election process is on, and new state presidents are expected to be elected by December. This acquires importance as the party in Northeast India is in the throes of a quiet turmoil due to internal power struggles in most states barring Arunachal Pradesh.
The most significant of these power struggles centres around the BJP’s Northeast in-charge, party general secretary Ram Madhav. Formerly omnipresent and all-powerful in matters relating to BJP in Northeast India, Madhav was notably absent from the fourth North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) conclave of the party and its regional allies held in Guwahati in September. His role of Chanakya and kingmaker in Northeast India has increasingly been taken over by NEDA convener Himanta Biswa Sarma, the party’s go-to man for the region. Sarma, who sought a Lok Sabha ticket for himself in the last elections, was denied one and kept back in the Northeast, with party chief Amit Shah explaining that it was done keeping in mind his role as NEDA Chairman.
If Madhav is assigned a new role it may have a direct bearing on the fortunes of those who became “kings” or ministers owing to his good offices. This includes Manipur Chief Minister Biren Singh and Nagaland Deputy Chief Minister Y Patton. In July, Singh faced an open revolt from senior BJP members led by his cabinet colleague T Biswajit Singh and Deputy Chief Minister Y Joykumar of ally National People’s Party, both of whom he stripped of significant ministries. Biren has clung on to power against all odds, owing to Madhav’s assistance, but the matter remained essentially unresolved with the rebels, which faction includes a majority of the state’s BJP MLAs, still waiting for the party’s top leadership to intercede on their behalf.
Rumbles of discontent are now evident in the Nagaland unit of the party as well, where Madhav was instrumental in the appointment of Patton, a former associate of the banned terrorist organisation National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang), ignoring the claims of two-term BJP MLA from the state, Paiwang Konyak. Patton, a controversial figure, made news after his appointment when he was caught on camera entering a Lok Sabha poll booth in Wokha district with a bunch of seven or eight voter slips and sporting a BJP scarf. A FIR was filed against him by the Congress party for proxy voting and violation of the election’s model code of conduct. As state Home Minster, he has also come in for criticism for alleged back-door appointments in the police department. That matter came to a head when he tried to remove the state Director General of Police, Rupin Sharma, in April 2018. The opposition Naga People’s Front had then issued a statement saying, “Patton has a track record of flouting all norms and procedures to get his candidates appointed or allotted contract and supply works.”
Patton, like Singh in Manipur, was a late entrant to the BJP, joining the party little more than a month before the 2018 state assembly polls. The immediate elevation of these new entrants to the highest offices overlooking claims of older party leaders has not gone down well with them. He has switched loyalties various times in the past. Most recently, he is reported to have met the leader of rebel group NSCN(IM), Thuingaleng Muivah, in the company of Naga People’s Front leader, former Chief Minister T.R. Zeliang.
Party sources in the Northeast say that the reason for the seeming obedience of the disgruntled BJP MLAs to Madhav’s diktats is partly because of the fact that the party’s top central leadership listened to his briefs, and partly for fear of being ignored if they showed signs of dissidence. Madhav has maintained indirect control of three Northeast states, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura, through his appointees including his young India Foundation assistants, Rajat Sethi and Priyang Pandey, who are Advisors to the Chief Ministers of Tripura, Manipur and Nagaland.
Does Madhav still enjoy the confidence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah? The Manipur case will provide an indication, one way or another. The dissidents are back in Delhi seeking redress of their woes, which centre around Biren Singh’s continuation in office as CM. If he remains, it will be thanks to Madhav.
There are a number of other serious issues facing governments in the Northeast. Nagaland is in a crucial phase of its politics as its decades-old peace talks head towards their end. Assam, which has assembly elections next year, is in slow turmoil over the National Register of Citizens. The proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill is a cause of agitation to all groups in the region.
The governments in Manipur, Nagaland, and Assam, among others, are coalitions. Managing alliances and internal party unity will be important given these looming crises. The BJP’s organisational elections in the Northeast, and the relative influence of Ram Madhav and Himanta Biswa Sarma in those polls, will be watched closely by party members and allies in the region and outside.