NEW DELHI: Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland add up to a mere “0.70 per cent of India’s population, equivalent to three Lok Sabha constituencies in Rajasthan”, wrote a dismissive voice on Twitter.
But that’s a gross misreading. At the end of a day that saw one stunning sweep, one knife-edge photofinish and one assembly hanging in the balance, the Northeast had done more than enough to make a deep mark on the national political discourse.
The spectacular rise of the BJP in states where it was never given even an outside chance, the crumbling of one of the only two remaining Left fortresses, and the near-total retreat of the Congress — all three phenomena will have a lasting impact on Indian politics in the run-up to 2019.
The BJP can now realistically look at the N-E as a collective catchment area — with a significant 25 Lok Sabha seats that can offset potential losses elsewhere. At a symbolic level, it’s also a triumphal, morale-boosting entry into territories that were always seen as the furthest from its cow belt politics.
For the Congress, the blank scorecard in two whole states (Tripura and Nagaland) wipes the tentative smile that had come on its visage after Gujarat and the Rajasthan bypolls. Now it goes into the Karnataka election later this year with that much more desperation — and spirits will be low if it cannot strike a few blows in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. On that will also depend the acceptability of Rahul Gandhi — who faced barbs of being “in Italy while Northeast fell” — as a united opposition leader.
And for the Left, there is nothing to lift the gloom. All it can look forward to is one more body for post-mortem, especially to decide the age-old question of whether it should have allied with the Congress. Prima facie, it may now be even more difficult to toe the ‘Yechury line’ that favours a secular alliance.
Going by the results from Tripura the Left needs a total reinvention if it is to survive. Manik Sarkar, the lone sentinel in the east for the CPI(M) who was CM for two decades, will finally bow out to a mix of ethnic antagonisms, rising aspirations and, crucially, the desire for change. The last sentiment was captured in the BJP’s slogan of ‘Chalo Paltai’ (Let’s Overturn), voiced by a man ironically named ‘Revolution’, Biplab Deb, now all set to be CM.
The BJP’s alliance with the (largely Christian) tribal party IPTF, which demands a separate Tipraland state, was the real gamechanger. It helped the saffron party make inroads into the Left’s tribal strongholds. In the permanent ethnic tension between ‘tribal’ and ‘outsider’ (read Bengali) that is central to Tripura politics, this allowed the BJP access to the very core.
That was not all. There was also a surge among urban voters tired of a depressed economy, particularly the youth (angry due to unemployment) and teachers (whose jobs CPI-M could not regularise). The desire for jobs and growth, which the BJP could harness, played a big role in Sarkar’s personal appeal as a clean politician diminishing — though the Left still retained about 44 per cent vote share.
There was the Debnath community, the largest Scheduled Caste bloc in Tripura, who dominate the 10 reserved constituencies. This community is linked to the Gorakhnath temple, and UP CM Yogi Adityanath was naturally roped in for campaigning in those seats. So it was a ‘plus plus plus’ story for the BJP—going from zero to a stunning majority in a stunning onslaught on hitherto virgin territory. The saffron party can thank the individual contributions of crucial RSS pointsman Sunil Deodhar, who has put in years of work in the Northeast and focused on tribals.
Plus, Amit Shah’s crafty, hands-on decision- making and Assam strongman Himanta Biswa Sarma’s deep roots and deal-making abilities meant the Congress leadership and rank and file walked over to the BJP. There was also a wider economic context. Connectivity had been kickstarted in the UPA era with metre-gauge rail and Internet. The Modi regime had expanded on this with broadgauge rail, an alternate internet gateway, a new National Highway, plus rail-, road-, river- and even sea port-connectivity through Bangladesh.
By evening, Nagaland seemed to be virtually in the BJP pocket, as its alliance inched to 30 seats. The state presented the picture of a big happy family, with both rival Naga parties willing to join hands with the BJP, Meghalaya was the only state that offered hope to the Congress. The BJP may still get its foot in the door along with P A Sangma’s son Conrad Sangma (of the NPP) and others. If the Congress is restricted to 22-23, it has to depend on smaller parties.
The GOP’s playmakers Ahmed Patel, Kamal Nath and Mukul Wasnik have flown in, though may come up short against Himanta’s skills. The only solace is that it’s not abdicating after elections like in Goa and Manipur. CM Mukul Sagma, facing a dual attack from Conrad and the BJP, is playing hard. He himself won both his seats too.