BJP’s Northeast Triumph Shows Amazing Flexibility of the Party

The results exposed the flabby nature of the challenge from two pillars of the opposition, the Left and the Congress

4 min read
Hindi Female

There was a time when assembly elections in the far-flung northeastern corner of India would hardly merit national attention. However, the BJP has changed that by storming into territories hitherto off-limits to saffron forces, with a formidable display of election muscle in this year’s polls in Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland.

The results from these states have not only reinforced the daunting power of the BJP’s lean mean poll machine, but they have also exposed the flabby nature of the challenge from two pillars of the opposition, the Left and the Congress. Both crumbled as the Modi-Shah juggernaut rolled into the northeast, with some artful backroom manoeuvring and the heady promise of change.


Tripura, the Last Fortress

Although all three states are tiny – with 60-member assemblies – the takeaways from the outcome of the elections are significant, and could possibly have a bearing on the 2019 general election.

One is the withering away of the Left as a political force in Indian politics. Tripura was its last fortress, and now it’s gone. Yes, it rules in Kerala, but this south Indian coastal state can hardly be called a Left bastion.

It shares power alternately with the Congress, and wins only in alliance with a host of smaller parties, some of which do not subscribe to the Left ideology.

In 2004, the Left helped script the defeat of the Vajpayee-led NDA, and facilitated the return of Congress after eight years in political wilderness. It had probably hoped to achieve something similar in 2019. But bereft of its erstwhile bastions in West Bengal and now Tripura, it can, at best, be a marginal player.

There are many reasons why the Left was decimated in Tripura, despite having a popular chief minister with a reputation for incorruptibility and simple living. But the main cause for defeat is the fossilised nature of its politics. The Left has nothing to offer a younger generation of Indians eager to move on from the poverty of their past. Left parties will have to do a serious rethink of their politics and ideology if they want to regain their old relevance.

The second takeaway is the amazing nimbleness and flexibility of BJP’s politics.

This has been a hallmark of the party over the decades as it wove in and out of alliances, sometimes with forces inimical to its ideology, driven by an all consuming ambition to replace Congress as the predominant pole of Indian politics.

The same ambition drives the party today, possibly with greater force. Look at the alliances it crafted in the northeast, and look at the manner in which it cheerfully abandoned its heartland cow politics to make itself acceptable in Christian dominated states where people eat beef.


How the BJP Made Inroads Into the Northeast

In Tripura, it abandoned Hindutva nationalism by entering into a prepoll alliance with a separatist group, Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura. The ploy worked spectacularly as the alliance swept the Left out of the door.

In Nagaland, it cunningly managed a double game. It remained with the ruling Naga People's Front (NPF), and yet fought the election in alliance with a breakaway group calling itself Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP). The gains for the BJP are two-fold. Whichever regional party forms the government eventually, the BJP has made sure that it will be a partner in power. And it has wiped out the Congress as a political force in Nagaland politics. The Congress did not win a single seat.

In Meghalaya, the Congress did a little better, winning 21 seats with some help from the Baptist church, which warned people against voting for the BJP.

However, by covertly assisting the main regional opponent in the state, Conrad Sangma’s National People's Party (NPP), and a host of Independents, the BJP has probably succeeded in blocking the Congress from forming a government.

Although the Congress rushed senior leaders to the state to prevent a recurrence of what happened in 2017 in Manipur and Goa, the BJP has both the clout and resources, as the party in power at the Centre, to steer the formation of a non-Congress government in Meghalaya.


The BJP and Its Erstwhile “Untouchability” Stigma

The emergence of the BJP as a central pole in northeastern politics is a historical shift. This is seen largely as a Hindu party and a dominant Hindi-speaking north Indian force. Yet, today, it has found acceptance in states that do not belong to this cultural and religious paradigm.

There is a powerful signal in this to smaller regional players across the country, outside the Hindi heartland, where the BJP may have to scout for allies to shore up its numbers for the 2019 polls. The last bit of the “untouchability’’ stigma the BJP carried has now gone.

Although in terms of Lok Sabha numbers, the northeastern states do not count for much. However, these election results are a warning to the opposition that it will have to depend on much more than anti-incumbency to defeat Modi and the BJP next year.

Modi and Amit Shah have fashioned the party into an impressive and powerful election machine with well-oiled levers right down to the grassroots level.

Opposition parties better realise what they are up against as they prepare to take on Modi in 2019. His sheen may have gone, but he has a formidable weapon in his party and the RSS. To this, add drive and determination to win at all costs. Does the opposition have the stomach for the battle ahead?


(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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