Opinion: Opinion: How BJP Won The Northeast And What Congress Needs To Do

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Assessing the polls in the three northeastern states through a single lens would be erroneous, because each was distinct.The only way they can be viewed as one, is from the boost that they have given to the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the party cadre, besides the failure of the Congress to rebound as a significant force.The first of the three elections was in Tripura, where the BJP secured a majority on its own and will no longer be dependent on any party for the smooth running of business in the legislative assembly.The second poll was in Nagaland where the party along with its senior partner, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), secured a majority.The third election was in Meghalaya in which the National People’s Party (NPP), led by incumbent Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, ended within striking distance of a clear majority. It required no further support after the United Democratic Party appeared to be poised to rejoin the coalition. Yet, the BJP with two elected legislators has hitched a ride on Sangma’s bandwagon for another five years.Another way of looking at the BJP’s return to the ruling coalition in Meghalaya after Sangma refused an alliance is that the Chief Minister — like several other politicians in the region — differentiates between electoral politics and governance.Having the BJP on your side is beneficial for any chief minister and can ensure a trouble-free ride but it can be a huge disadvantage during an election. Still, all’s well that ends well, and for the BJP, the message to relay outside the region is that the party “remains in power” in Meghalaya.This is how the BJP created the narrative of having “won” all the three states. At a time when there has been considerable talk about opposition unity and alliance formations for 2024, it is the BJP that forged the right alliances in Nagaland and Meghalaya, while the parties ranged against it worked at cross purposes.Witness for instance, the efforts of the Trinamool Congress to expand its base outside West Bengal after 2016 to have greater role in cobbling together an anti-BJP front.In the northeast, it first tried to do so in Tripura, but failed to make any headway in the 2018 polls. It put up as many as 24 candidates and each forfeited the security deposit.In an attempt to create a Bengal Plus image, the Trinamool Congress engineered defections from the Congress and got former chief minister Mukul Sangma to cross over. The Trinamool underperformed and the two parties won five seats each. Their vote shares too remained near the 13 per cent mark.Barring Tripura, this was a round of elections where the regional parties were the stars and the national parties were the sidekicks, trying to hit the big time.Of the 119 seats for which elections were held in Meghalaya and Nagaland, regional parties won as many as 83, or close to 70 per cent of the seats. From the remaining 36 seats, as many as 12, all in Nagaland, were won by the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas), Republican Party of India (Athawale) and Janata Dal (United).By no stretch of imagination do these state units count as representatives of national parties controlled by a central leadership. They are essentially small regional political players who were “accepted” by the parties and allowed to use the branding, because it is mutually ‘convenient’. This just adds to the complexity of understanding the political dynamics in the northeast.In Tripura, the national-regional equation is different. Even during the almost four decades of continuous CPI (M) rule, the two main parties, the Communists and the Congress, were national parties. There were regional players, but primarily restricted to the 20 seats reserved for tribals; these were not the principal parties even when contesting alone.The BJP has smartly emerged as a major player in the state after Modi became Prime Minister, starting from zero seats and a vote share of 1.54 per cent in 2013. The party struck an alliance with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura and secured a majority in 2018. Five years later, the BJP dispensed with the ally and still secured a clear majority.Despite its overenthusiastic supporters demanding that the Tipra Motha be branded as separatist and thereby anti-national, good sense must prevail on the party leadership.This is not the time to reopen old wounds. Instead, efforts must be made to engage and conduct dialogue to bring further change in tribal voting behaviour (the BJP won six tribal seats). The new government needs to sensitively examine the tribal aspirations that TMP tapped into.This can be only to the BJP’s benefit, because unlike the view from outside, the tribal community, even in Tripura, is not homogenous and is as heterogeneous as any other community in India is. It is also well known that India, people determine their loyalty to parties after elections on their capacity to “do something” for them.Parties have traditionally found it a tough order to retain cadre and public support in the face of an adversary like the BJP, especially if it is in power. The leadership of the TMP would serve their cause by being conscious of this reality and that it cannot sustain itself purely on basis of people’s enthusiasm.In contrast, the BJP is known for ideologically committed cadre and personnel who manage the party machinery. Significantly, in his now traditional victory speech at the party headquarters in New Delhi, Modi coined a new term, Triveni. He elaborated three elements that are vital to the party’s electoral campaigns since 2014 – achievements of BJP governments (in the states or at the Centre), the work culture of the party governments (suggesting honesty, transparency, and decisiveness) and the seva bhav of all karyakartas or party cadre.In his speech at the party office, Modi not only shared credit with the workers of the Sangh Parivar in the northeast, but he also amplified the hardships they faced and how they stayed firm on their resolve in the face of adversities prior to 2014.Undoubtedly, the BJP in the northeast is a different ‘variant’ of the party as it exists in the core heartland areas, from where the party’s numerical spine is pieced together seat by seat.Yet, because of its strategic location, Modi is aware that having the people of this region on his side is akin to a jewel in the crown. It may have been a coincidence, but the international community gathered for the G-20 meeting would not have missed the BJP ‘sweep’.The victories, besides galvanising party workers, will be of little benefit in tackling the electoral challenges in its path to the ‘finals’ in 2024. Of the six states that will vote this year, four are virtually a direct combat between the BJP and the Congress.If the Congress still wishes to be taken as the most consequential opposition party in the run-up to 2014, it cannot be as lackadaisical as it was during these three polls in the northeast.(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. He has also written The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.