BJP supporters hold up a placard of Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the party’s victory in the Tripura Assembly elections results in Agartala on March 3, 2018. (Photograph: PTI) 

North-East Verdict New Ground For The BJP, But Not A New Wave

BloombergQuintOpinion

The Bharatiya Janata Party has now formally become a party of India’s north-east. It already had governments in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Manipur. Now it will form a government in Tripura and be an alliance partner of the government in Nagaland. Meghalaya is still open and the Mizoram election is due later this year.

The most stunning victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in Tripura. In Nagaland, the party gained ground with the Nagas tagging along in the hope that that the BJP government at the Centre can conclude a peace accord to end the six-decade insurgency. In Meghalaya, the BJP suffered a stunning defeat on the ground. Only 2 of its 47 candidates won – both poached from rival parties.

The victory in Tripura goes deeper than 25 years of anti-incumbency against the Communists.

Hard work, electoral alliances and political management of the BJP in the state has paid off.

Outgoing Chief Minister Manik Sarkar’s government was not corrupt. In fact, both the people of Tripura and of rest of India have much to thank him for.

Sarkar was the first chief minister of any north-eastern state to create stable and peaceful conditions enabling him to remove the Disturbed Areas Act and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act from Tripura.

He rehabilitated gun-wielding insurgents as rubber planters. Tripura today is the second largest rubber producer in India after Kerala.

Sarkar’s frugal and honest lifestyle is exceptional for any chief minister. The vote for the BJP was however against the governance system he presided over. His government was not free from favouritism and nepotism. Communist functionaries and cadres once a part of the power structure become exceptional bullies and sectarian in dispensing state patronage. This contributed in no small measure to the downfall of the Communists in West Bengal too.

File photo of outgoing Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar. (Photo: PTI)
File photo of outgoing Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar. (Photo: PTI)

With over 10,000 tribal youngsters in Tripura unemployed, the BJP tapped into the simmering discontent with unrealistic promises of jobs and the implementation of the Seventh Pay Commission recommendations.

An alliance with the Indigenous Peoples’ Front of Tripura (IPFT) also helped. The IPFT demand for a separate state of ‘Twipraland’ for tribals was temporarily assuaged with promises of greater autonomy.

The promise of citizenship to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh – Tripura has a substantial number of them – attracted the Bengali-speaking voters to the BJP.

The anti-Communist vote was further consolidated with leaders from the Congress and Trinamool Congress joining the BJP wholesale. The election quickly became bipolar. The public response to “chalo paltai (Let’s overthrow)” also suggests tapping into the boredom that comes with seeing the same faces in power for long.

In Nagaland, the BJP has done well both because the Naga political parties see an advantage in going along with it, as it has a government at the Centre, and the party has toned down its anti-Christian, anti-beef rhetoric.

The Naga peace talks are at a crucial stage and a government in Nagaland in alliance with the BJP is likely to smoothen the way for the implementation of the accord. This explains why the BJP was an ally of the Naga Peoples’ Front (NPF) in the outgoing government as well as the electoral ally of the breakaway National Democratic Progressive Party of Neiphiu Rio.

An alliance government in Nagaland with the BJP is crucial at a time when the states which might be affected by the Naga Accord are also ruled by the BJP – Manipur, Arunachal, and Assam.
 Protesters burn effigy of Nagaland Chief Minister TR Zeliang, Nagaland Home Minister Y Patton, NPF President Shürhozelie and Nagaland IRB personnel during a protest against killing of two youth by security personnel, in Dimapur, Nagaland. (Photo: PTI)
Protesters burn effigy of Nagaland Chief Minister TR Zeliang, Nagaland Home Minister Y Patton, NPF President Shürhozelie and Nagaland IRB personnel during a protest against killing of two youth by security personnel, in Dimapur, Nagaland. (Photo: PTI)

A politically inimical state government in any of these states could result in the accord being torpedoed. Although its detailed contours are not known, the accord is bound to address the issues of Nagas spread over these states without changing the geographical boundaries of any state but possibly offering territorial councils with considerable financial powers at an apex as well as regional levels. This would require the affected states to be on the same page. A BJP presence in the state governments could be a moderating influence on them.

In Meghalaya, the BJP will try its best to cobble together an alliance with the National Peoples’ Party.

The Congress is at a distinct disadvantage despite being the largest party.

The smaller parties that it seeks to approach will not join hands with it because of Congress’ secular ideology. Some of them like the United Democratic Party and the Hill State Peoples’ Party were part of an alliance aimed at dislodging the Congress government. If they do go along with it, it will be for reasons which have been the bane of politics in the north-east. However, the Congress may not be able to offer the kind of loaves and fish to potential allies that the BJP can because of its access to resources.

The BJP will no doubt tom-tom its achievements in the north-eastern states as an ideological victory. It is anything but that.

The politics of these states are not defined by ideology but by ethnicity, fear of outsiders and money power.

Parties and politicians go wholesale to the highest bidder. The BJP can go on dancing to its heart’s content at present but should it lose power at the Centre in 2019 or take missteps – as is possible with the implementation of the Naga accord – the political scene in the north-east can change overnight.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi witnessing the signing and exchange of the peace accord between the Government of India and the NSCN, in New Delhi on August 3, 2015. (Photograph: PIB)<a href="https://www.facebook.com/sharer/sharer.php?u=http://pibphoto.nic.in/photo//2015/Aug/l2015080368205.jpg"><i><br></i></a>
Prime Minister Narendra Modi witnessing the signing and exchange of the peace accord between the Government of India and the NSCN, in New Delhi on August 3, 2015. (Photograph: PIB)

However, between them, the seven sister states represent 26 Lok Sabha constituencies and if the BJP is careful not to disturb their precarious politics till the general election, it may stand to gain these seats. But, the sole clear victory in Tripura does not presage a wave in favour of the BJP for any other state election or even the general election. If anything, the only impact of the Tripura debacle will be on the CPI(M), forcing hardliner ideologues like Prakash Karat to stop hair-splitting about who is the bigger enemy of secular India – the BJP or the Congress. The defeat of the party in Tripura will weaken the Karat-line in the party and strengthen those who do not wish to view India through the eyes of the Kerala comrades.

Bharat Bhushan is a journalist based in Delhi.

The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Bloomberg Quint or its editorial team.