ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Electoral Response to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the North East

Amongla Jamir (tiamong04@rediffmail.com)teaches at Fazl Ali College, Mokokchung, Nagaland. R K Satapathy (rksatpathy9@gmail.com) teaches at the Department of Political Science, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. S Mangi Singh (smangisingh@yahoo.co.in) teaches at the Department of Political Science, Manipur University. Shreyas Sardesai (shreyas.sardesai@gmail.com) is with the Lokniti–CSDS, Delhi.

An examination of survey data is undertaken to understand why the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill issue did not affect the poll fortunes of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the North East. While it has caused widespread outrage in the region in the past many months, why then did it not dent the National Democratic Alliance’s electoral performance? Poll results in Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland are examined since these were the only states in the North East (other than Assam) where the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies–Lokniti conducted a post-poll survey. Local-level factors seem to explain the outcome better.

In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it was widely believed that the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB), 2016 introduced by the Narendra Modi government would affect the prospects of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies in the north-eastern states. Across most states of the region, the CAB, which sought to provide Indian citizenship to non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, had led to vigorous protests by people from different walks of life soon after it had been passed by the Lok Sabha in January 2019. The protestors’ opposition stemmed from fears that it would give legitimacy to illegal migrants in India and affect the existing demography of the region. While these protests as well as the pressure built by the BJP’s North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) allies and its north-eastern leadership eventually forced the government to withdraw the bill from being tabled in the Rajya Sabha, the BJP’s top leadership and its election manifesto nonetheless maintained its commitment to the idea (Hindu 2019; Times of India 2019). When the election results came out on 23 May, it emerged that the CAB issue had not dented the BJP’s performance in the region.

The BJP won nine of the 10 seats it contested in Assam, both the seats in Arunachal Pradesh, one of the two seats in Manipur, and both seats in Tripura. It thus won 14 of the total 25 seats across the region, a gain of six seats compared to the 2014 election. In Nagaland, its ally the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) won the lone seat by a narrow margin. The only states where the BJP failed to make much impact were Meghalaya, Mizoram and Sikkim. In all three, it contested on its own. Its overall vote share in the region went up by 5 percentage points (Table 1). We will try to understand through the use of survey data why the CAB which caused widespread outrage in the region and was made into a key electoral plank by the opposition Congress, did not affect the BJP’s prospects (Talukdar 2019). Our attention will be limited to the states of Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland since these were the only states in the North East (other than Assam, separately discussed in this issue) where the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)–Lokniti conducted a post-poll survey.

Manipur

The 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Manipur produced a split verdict with the BJP winning the Inner Manipur Parliamentary Constituency (IMPC) and the Naga People’s Front winning the Outer Manipur Parliamentary Constituency (OMPC). The result was a big setback for the Congress, which had won both the seats in the 2014 election (Table 2, p 20). The results of the two seats basically signified two important things—first, the failure of the plainsmen in IMPC to translate their opposition to the CAB into a defeat for the BJP, and second, a morale boost for Naga solidarity in OMPC where the Naga People’s Front won.

The BJP’s victory in the IMPC happened despite tremendous opposition in the constituency to its attempt to implement the CAB a few months before elections. In the post-poll survey, over half the respondents (52%) in IMPC said they had taken part in a protest against the bill. Moreover, over three-fourths of all voters (77%) were found to be fully opposed to it. However, when it came to expressing their disapproval through voting, voters did not rally together to put up a combined opposition to the BJP. The survey data reveal that even among those who opposed the CAB or protested against it, the BJP did well getting a plurality of their votes (Table 3).

This indicates that even though people had strong opinions about the CAB in IMPC, it did not end up being a voting issue for many of them. For most voters, development and economic growth was a much bigger issue instead. One in every four or 25% said so in response to an open-ended question on the most important voting issue. It is quite possible then that since the BJP was ruling at both the state and the central levels, the voters chose to cast their votes in its favour. The survey data also indicates that the “party” was a bigger consideration for the BJP voters than the “candidate” in IMPC. Nearly three-fourths (72%) of the BJP voters said they voted for the party rather than the candidate fielded by it. In the OMPC on the other hand most BJP and NPF voters looked at the candidate.

The CSDS–Lokniti survey found that the Congress had a slight edge over the BJP among the Meitei community in the IMPC. However, what seems to have tilted the scales in favour of the BJP is the Scheduled Caste (SC) vote which overwhelmingly voted in favour of the ruling party. Younger voters (18–35 year olds) were also far more likely to vote for the BJP (43%) in IMPC than those aged above 35 years (31%).

The win of the NPF in OMPC underlines the considerable strength of Naga solidarity. The Tangkhul Nagas more or less completely voted for the NPF as per the CSDS–Lokniti survey data. However, the Kabuis who are the most prominent of the Zeliangrong Naga tribes within the larger Naga identity preferred the BJP and the Congress mostly. This means the NPF does not have much mass support base among the Zeliangrong people, and obviously hints to a significant difference in the aspirations of the Tangkhul Nagas and that of the Kabui Nagas or Zeliangrong Nagas. The Kuki–Mizo–Chin or non-Naga tribes (Thadous and Hmars), the CSDS– Lokniti survey found, voted either for the BJP or the Congress, thus indicating the polarisation of electoral politics on ethnic lines in the hills of Manipur.

Meghalaya

The election result in Meghalaya mirrored the outcome of the 2014 election with the two Lok Sabha constituencies in the state voting in opposite directions and electing the very same parties yet again. While Shillong was won by the Congress, Tura elected the National People’s Party (NPP). The main contest on both seats was between the Congress on the one side, and the Meghalaya Democratic
Alliance (MDA) constituents, the NPP and the United Democratic Party (UDP), on the other. The two MDA parties decided to field common candidates against the Congress. The NPP contested the Tura seat and the UDP, Shillong. The BJP, also a constituent of the MDA, however, stayed away from this arrangement and contested from the two constituencies on its own. It eventually lost its security deposit on both seats (Table 4).

In the Shillong constituency, Vincent Pala of Congress won for the third time in a row tripling his victory margin in a six-cornered contest. In Tura, there was a three-cornered contest among the Congress, NPP and the BJP. Still the turf of late Purno A Sangma, here the youngest sibling of the family, Agatha Sangma defeated the Congress candidate and former Chief Minister Mukul Sangma. Her victory margin was a slight improvement over her father’s 2014 victory margin. Tura has always seen the battle between two political Sangma families, Purno and Mukul and it was no different this time. Lokniti’s post-poll survey in fact indicates that the three-fourths who voted for the NPP in Tura voted in Agatha Sangma’s name rather than the party’s name (Table 5, p 21). Similarly two-thirds of those who voted for the Congress in Tura voted for Mukul Sangma rather than his party. On the other hand, voters who voted for Vincent Pala in Shillong voted for him because of his party.

One of the major reasons why the NPP and UDP constituents preferred to keep a safe distance from the BJP during the elections was the controversy around the CAB and the BJP national leadership’s open support for it. The Christian-majority state that shares its border with Bangladesh had seen protests against the CAB in January and February. The NPP took a strong position against the CAB and its leader, and Chief Minister Conrad Sangma met central leaders to express his concerns. The UDP meanwhile decided to leave the BJP-led NEDA following BJP chief Amit Shah’s announcement that if voted to power, the saffron party would ensure the passage of the CAB. While the CSDS–Lokniti post-poll survey in Meghalaya does indicate a fairly strong sentiment against the CAB, it however does not find any clear relationship between voters’ support or opposition to the CAB and their voting preferences. Even as half of the respondents were found to be aware of the CAB issue and nearly two-fifths were opposed to the bill, when it came to voting, the BJP got nearly as many votes from those who opposed the bill as those who supported it. Moreover, the NPP which had taken a strong anti-bill position got a greater share of votes from those who supported the bill or were not aware about it than those who opposed it (Table 6).

The BJP’s poor performance in the state seems to have been more on account the fact that it was a deeply disliked party, most probably because of its Hindutva and cow protection agenda in mainland India. In the CSDS–Lokniti survey, nearly two-thirds (64%) said they did not like the BJP at all or liked it very little. Not just the BJP, there was also a strong sentiment against the Modi government. The survey found half of all respondents (51%) to be against giving the Modi government another chance, with only 12% wanting it back and 37% being ambivalent. Only 15% wanted Modi back as Prime Minister as opposed to 37% who preferred Rahul Gandhi. The proportion of those fully dissatisfied with the Modi government’s work was twice as high as the proportion fully satisfied—18% and 9%, respectively. The one-year-old state government led by the NPP on the other hand was assessed extremely positively. Respondents were seven times more likely to be fully satisfied with its performance than fully dissatisfied, 21% to 3%.

Nagaland

In Nagaland, the competitors for the lone seat in 2019 were Congress candidate K L Chishi supported by the NPF; the NDPP candidate Tokheho Yepthomi backed by the ruling People’s Democratic Alliance (PDA) of which the BJP is a part; NPP candidate Hayithung Tungoe and independent candidate M M Thromwa. Tokheho Yepthomi defeated Chishi by a thin margin in what became a strictly bipolar contest. The result went with the trend set since the first election in 1967 of the elected Lok Sabha member being from the state’s ruling government. The only exception was in 1984, owing to serious political instability of four different ministries and President’s rule. Yepthomi’s victory, however, was extremely narrow compared to his victory in 2018 by poll (necessitated by sitting MP Neiphiu Rio becoming the chief minister) which he had won by a comfortable margin of one lakh votes.

The chief reason for the contest between the NDPP–BJP and Congress having been so close in 2019 was the pre-election support extended by the NPF to the Congress. The CSDS–Lokniti survey data shows that three-fifths of the NPF’s 2014 voters transferred their votes to the Congress and nearly two-fifths to NDPP (Table 7). The vote transfer of the NPF voters towards the Congress also meant that traditional bastions also shifted allegiances. The survey data shows that over three-fourths of voters from the Angami tribe who are traditional supporters of the NPF voted for the Congress. The voters from the Lotha and Chakhesang region got equally divided like the votes from the Ao tribal region, thus cancelling each other out. It is assumed that the final swing in the votes for NDPP came from the Mon tribal region (not captured by the CSDS–Lokniti survey) thus giving a narrow victory to the NDPP.

As per the survey data, there was a mismatch between voters’ opinions and the actual outcome. The BJP-backed NDPP candidate won despite a majority of voters preferring Rahul Gandhi for the post of Prime Minister (50%) over Narendra Modi (24%), despite twice as many voters wanting the Modi-led government at the centre to go (49%) than return (21%), despite voters being more dissatisfied with the central government (52%) than satisfied (39%), and despite voters disliking the BJP the most (33%) compared to all other parties (Table 8, p 21). This divergence could be explained on three counts. First, there were a sizeable proportion of respondents who actually stayed silent on all these four questions (and many such) and they are the ones who the survey suggests titled the scales in favour of the NDPP. Second, most voters seem to have cast their votes by looking at the candidate rather than his party. Thus even though the NDPP was being backed by a party they did not think highly about, many voters seem to have discounted this aspect and gone ahead and voted for the NDPP for local reasons. This is not to say that the BJP does not have its admirers in the staunchly Christian Nagaland. As Table 8 shows, there are about 35% who either like the Bjp a lot or somewhat. The slow rise of the BJP, even if through the backdoor, can be attributed to it being in power at the centre, the statesmanship of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (Karmakar 2018), the signing of the framework agreement by Modi, the Congress split in 2003 and the NPF’s rebellious break up resulting in policy paralysis.

Conclusions

Based on the post-poll survey evidence, it can be concluded that the controversial CAB may not have been a major determinant of voting preferences in the north-eastern region in the 2019 elections. It certainly was not in the three states discussed here. In Manipur, the BJP won a sizeable proportion of votes of those opposed to the bill on both seats; winning one and coming second on the other. In Nagaland, the victorious NDA candidate garnered a greater share of votes among those opposed to the bill than those supporting it. In Meghalaya, although the BJP fared poorly overall, it got nearly as many votes among those who opposed the bill as those who supported it. More than the CAB, local-level factors, such as the personality of the contesting candidate, performance of the state government and pre-existing tribal and ethnic fault lines, seem to have mattered more to voters.

References

Hindu (2019): “Amit Shah Swears by Citizenship Bill,” 17 February, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/sacrifices-of-crpf-personnel-wont..., viewed on 4 July.

Karmakar, Rahul (2018): “Atal Behari Vajpayee, an Understanding Friend of the Nagas,” 18 August, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/atal-bihari-vajpayee..., viewed on 4 July 2019.

Talukdar, Sushanta (2019): “Citizenship Bill as Main Plank,” Frontline, 26 April, https://frontline.thehindu.com/cover-story/article26780036.ece, viewed on 4 July.

Times of India (2019): “BJP Reiterates Commitment to Enact Citizenship Amendment Bill,” 8 April, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/elections/news/bjp-reiterates-commit..., viewed on 4 July.

Updated On : 23rd Aug, 2019

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top