By any measure, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s performance in Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya has to be termed as spectacular. For a party that forfeited its deposit in 49 of the 50 seats it contested in Tripura in the 2013 Assembly elections, getting only 1.54 per cent of the vote share, winning 35 seats with 43 per cent vote share was stunning.
The same is the case with Nagaland, where the saffron party’s vote share jumped from 1.75 per cent in 2013 to 14.4 per cent this time, and its seats tally rose from only one to 12. The figures only emphasise the point that if the primary objective of being in politics is the pursuit of power, then the BJP has mastered the art and opposition parties, particularly the Congress, need to learn from it.
Just two years ago, the party had only a nominal presence in the Northeast: five MLAs in Assam, 11 in Arunachal Pradesh and one or two more in other states. From that position to being in power in five of the Northeast’s seven states, with the likelihood of Meghalaya also in partnership with the National People’s Party, the party has turned the Northeast saffron. The only state that has a non-BJP/NDA government is Mizoram, which will see elections in the year-end.
So what has driven the BJP to pursue power so vigorously in a region that is in the margins of national consciousness and widely considered politically insignificant? The region sends only 24 members to the Lok Sabha, yet BJP general secretary Ram Madhav is known to have spent a lot of time and resources in all the states, which until recently was considered a no-go area for the party. Many are Christian-dominated, not the natural catchment area of the BJP. It was only the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that had been quietly working in the area for years, essentially to counter what in its view are proselytising forces in the Northeast.
The main reason why the Northeast is important for the BJP is ideological. The party believes that for securing national integration, the border regions are critical. The Northeast, therefore, is the perfect breeding ground for the fulfilment of its ideological vision of Akhand Bharat, wherein the entire country is not only integrated geographically but also culturally and emotionally. For the BJP, the region is not peripheral but central to its beliefs.
In the euphoria of victory, the BJP will be tempted to interpret its latest win to its growing pan-India appeal. That the party’s acceptability is breaking new ground and regions. But this interpretation will not be entirely correct. The first reason why the BJP has been able to make inroads in the Northeast is purely utilitarian. The region, while being rich in natural resources, is landlocked, has no industries worth the name, and was deliberately kept isolated for centuries by the British, making it miss the development bus.
A Planning Commission report authored by economist S P Shukla talked about the Northeast suffering from an infrastructure deficit—lack of roads, bridges, water supply and power—because of the isolationist policy of the British. As the region has very little means for revenue generation of its own and has to depend on Central government largesse, political parties find it prudent to align themselves with the Centre. This explains why Pema Khandu, the Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister who belonged to the Congress, chose to merge his party lock, stock and barrel with the BJP. This also explains why regional parties such as the Naga People’s Front and the Sikkim Democratic Front quickly joined the NDA when it came to power at the Centre in 2014.
But the party’s emergence cannot be reduced to only this rule of thumb. The BJP also owes its rise to its ability to co-opt leaders from other parties. This strategy was worked brilliantly for the party, especially in a region where people vote more for the candidate than the banner under which he is contesting. Here village, tribal and clan affinities count more than the party. This enables candidates to get elected even if they switch parties and loyalties.
Almost all the newly-elected BJP MLAs in all the three states— Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya—were members or MLAs of other parties. The exception perhaps is Biplab Deb, the frontrunner for chief ministership in Tripura, who was in the RSS. None of its current chief ministers are dyed in the wool BJP-RSS members. While Khandu and N Biren Singh of Manipur are former Congressmen, Sarbananda Sonowal of Assam is a former Asom Gana Parishad member.
Here lies the next challenge for the BJP, having successfully engineered co-opted growth, the party will now need to work on organic growth. The process will not be easy, rather the path will be laden with ideological churning. The party will have to shed its majoritarian outlook and give political space to smaller communities and tribes. Issues like the beef ban will pull the party in opposite directions. While the party will face growing pressure from the Hindu heartland to ban cow slaughter, it will have to respect the food habits of the tribals of the Northeast. The party which openly flaunts its Hindutva credentials will also have to perform a balancing act on religion. Christian missionaries are viewed with suspicion by the BJP-RSS core but for many tribals in the region, Christianity brought them out of animistic darkness.
Having stamped its footprint in all of the Northeast, barring Mizoram, some grass-roots BJP workers have been wont to call their party the Bharatiya Jesus Party. But that, at this stage, would be premature. Only when the people of the Northeast are steeped in the BJP-RSS core beliefs of mandir, cow slaughter ban and Uniform Civil Code can that definition of the BJP hold good.
H Khogen Singh
Resident Editor, The Sunday Standard