What the Tripura Victory Signifies for BJP's Dreams in the North East

Radhika Ramaseshan (ramaseshan.radhika@gmail.com) is consulting editor, Business Standard.
6 March 2018

The Bharatiya Janata Party is jubilant after its performance in the assembly elections in Tripura. However, while it was relatively simpler for the party to find success in Assam and Tripura because their politics essentially follows the trajectory of “mainstream” India, cracking the other states in the North East may be complex and a long haul. In the meantime, the BJP will make peace with the regional forces and forsake or dilute the Hindutva-specific agenda according to expediency. It helps to have a government at the centre that can dangle and deliver carrots from time to time.

With only 59 assembly and two Lok Sabha seats, Tripura is just about visible on the political map to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Independently or in conjunction with other parties, the party rules over electorally high-yielding states such as Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. On 3 March, hours after the trends in Tripura’s assembly elections ­established a conclusive victory for the BJP, the party broke out into a celebration that was matched in scale and ent­husiasm with the jubilation that marked its sweep in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh ­assembly polls. The new multistoried BJP office with 70 rooms—its grandeur approximating a top-class corporate headquarter and purportedly surpassing the offices of political parties the world over—could not have heralded its arrival more grandiosely.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory speech to the BJP workers appropriately used an architectural analogy to explain his party’s full-fledged victory in a second north-eastern state after Assam. He said that vastu shastra (or the Hindu system of architecture) considered the corner facing the north-east as the “most important” part of a structure because of which the north-east formed the pivot of an edifice. “My country’s north-east has come forward to lead our onward journey (‘yatra’) of development,” he declared, implying that he and his government were indeed on the “right” track.


In the recent elections and by-elections, the BJP suffered a partial setback in Gujarat while it was decisively routed in three by-polls in Rajasthan and lost two in Madhya Pradesh rather narrowly. Pertinently, it had held all the three (one assembly and two Lok Sabha) seats in Rajasthan, but not those in Madhya Pradesh that fall within Congress Member of Parliament (MP) Jyotiraditya Madhav­rao Scindia’s Guna constituency and are held by his party. Pressured by the Delhi “high command” that remains sceptical of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s loyalty quotient towards Modi, Chouhan (who had lost two earlier by-elections in Ater and Chitrakoot) staked his prestige, time and resources in the Mungaoli and Kolaras assembly seats. He mobilised his council of ministers to launch a blitzkrieg (in the form of public meetings and road shows) in the Chambal constituencies to take the message of his own government’s “development” and that of the centre. Therefore, is one supposed to infer that, while the north-eastern states of Nagaland and Tripura ostensibly embraced Modi’s template of governance and deve­lopment, the heartland turned its back on it? In Meghalaya, the third state that went to the polls recently, the BJP picked up only two seats.


Modi certainly suggested that, sounding beside himself with joy as the tidings from Agartala arrived. He said,


Amidst the disinformation, I am grateful to the voters of the north-east. Far away, people understood what the BJP and the BJP government is about. It’s difficult for them to discard the age-old perceptions and embrace new certitudes. But when our humble, ordinary workers reached out to them and revealed the truth, they won over people’s hearts and we won the elections.


To reduce a mandate to a debate bet­ween “falsehood” and “truth” and contend that “truth” triumphed, as Modi framed it, is simplistic and misleading. The Tripura verdict carries deeper signifiers. A clue to one of them was visible in the festivities that broke out among the BJP’s rank-and-file in Kerala and West Bengal shortly after the trends became known. Kerala is under a Left Front government and West Bengal under the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) government that is every bit as antagonistic towards the BJP as the left coalition. But the slogans the BJP raised were against the “barbaric Communists.” These were counterpoised with the presence of the BJP as the people’s “saviour.” In West Bengal, the BJP persistently portrayed Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as “corrupt” and a “patron” of the Muslims. In Kerala, its storyline that is themed on the “killings” of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) volunteers and its own workers although the RSS’s retaliatory eliminations, amounting to a head for a head, has also been meti­culously documented. Senior journalist Subir Bhaumik noted,


Both Tripura and West Bengal are Bengali-majority states with long years of Left rule and any major progress made by the BJP in Tripura will be a source of concern for both Mamata ­Banerjee’s AITC and the Left in Bengal. (Bhaumik 2018)


It is worth noting that as the BJP was ­rejoicing after its Tripura showing, Mamata Banerjee lashed out against the Congress and its president Rahul Gandhi for not taking the elections seriously (Scroll.in 2018). Indeed, the Congress’s dismal performance in Tripura and Nagaland has cast doubts on Rahul Gandhi’s ability to lead a larger coalition against the BJP closer to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Unless, the Congress keeps Karnataka and defeats the BJP in the Madhya Pradesh, Rajas­than and Chhattisgarh polls later this year, the sheen that Gandhi had acqui­red after the Congress’s unexpected showing in Gujarat and the success in the Rajasthan by-polls may wear thin, undermine opposition unity, and confound the issue of who could lead an ­anti-BJP front.


Anti-left Hostility


For decades, the left’s ideology has been anathema to the RSS and the BJP. Their spokespersons loosely tar dissenters of all political persuasions as “Maoists” or “Marxists.” Ironically, the Congress is not regarded with the same degree of anta­gonism. A BJP strategist who worked in Tripura described Congress leaders and sympathisers as “nationalists” and welcomed the exodus from their ranks to his party (Ramaseshan 2018a). Modi’s victory speech specifically singled out Tripura’s “Maoist ideologues” as being culpable for the murder of “several” BJP workers and played on the “martyrdom” trope by keeping a two-minute silence for those that had perished while Shah dedicated the victory to the “martyrs.”


The second message emanates from the BJP’s “Act East” outlook that germinated and evolved into a policy shortly after the BJP won the 2014 elections. The BJP was almost always successful only in the north and the west and Karnataka in the south. There are two parts to the “Act East” agenda. The BJP clu­bbed the eight north-eastern states (including Sikkim) into one political grouping and the states/union territory along the east coast into another grouping. The latter comprised of Tamil Nadu, ­Puducherry, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. Between them, the north-eastern states contribute 24 Lok Sabha MPs, and the coastal quintet, 128 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats (Ramaseshan 2018b). While the Tamil Nadu and West Bengal grouping offers a fairly big chunk of seats, the North East is valued by the BJP not for the number of seats it containes, but the political signals the region beams to the country as a whole.


It is no wonder then that Modi tried hard to demolish the theory that the “tyranny of distance” between Delhi and Dispur and the other state capitals was a figment of the imagination in his regime. He listed the various steps his government took to bridge the “distance.” He claimed that when his government came to power, there were frequent reports of the harassment and victimisation of the residents hailing from the North East and living in Delhi. Home Minister Rajnath Singh was dire­cted to speak to the victims and straighten out matters. One of the decisions arising from such occurrences was creating a quota in the police for those from the North East. It is another matter that even today, those from the North East are looked upon askance in Delhi and spoken of in derisive terms.


But the North East, with its mixed ethnicity and faiths, serves as a con­venient front to the BJP and Modi to bolster their national acceptability and “prove” that they are not insular. This idea was rejected by Meghalaya where the BJP’s militant advocacy of vegetarianism, its “save the cow” campaign, and a backhanded way of slighting Christians by declaring 25 December as “good governance day” and insisting on the participation of all government employees worked against its effort to shore up its “pan Indian” credentials (Jha 2018).

On the other hand, Tripura was demographically more hospitable to the BJP because it is a Hindu majority state with a 9% Muslim population and a sprinkling of Christians among the tribals (Ramaseshan 2018a).

Using the inroads it has made in the north-east to project itself as a party that has transcended the boundaries of the Hindi heartland and the western India may or may not work for the BJP. There is no den­ying that while the Congress seems to have thrown up its hands out of apathy or futility, the BJP is assiduously working on a game plan to enhance its acceptability in this region.


Other Parties


The North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), formed on 24 May 2016, shortly after the BJP won Assam, proposed to unite the non-Congress parties and set up a neutral platform for the constituents to engage themselves with the BJP and the centre without joining the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The NEDA held a strategy session with the chief ministers of Assam, Manipur, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland soon thereafter under the chairmanship of Shah and the backroom endeavour of Himanta Biswa Sarma, a former Assam Congressman who shifted to the BJP ­after the Congress had allegedly given him short shrift.


However, the NEDA’s first meeting came under a cloud because Kalikho Pul, the Arunachal Pradesh chief mini­ster—who had defected from the Congress with his entire flock of legislators—returned to the Congress before the session was over. Ironically, Shah had announced that the NEDA’s main ­intent was to “liberate” the North East from the Congress.


Elusive Goal


“Liberation” is an attractive word, but, the BJP’s interpretation has been confined to the tactics of chicanery and defections that are an integral part of politicking in some of the north-eastern states. In March 2017, when Manipur voted, the BJP was beaten to the post by the Congress, which emerged as the single largest party with 28 legislators in a 60-member assembly, while the BJP got 21 seats. It 

cobbled a disparate majority with the help of the Naga People’s Front, the National People’s Party, the Lok Janshakti Party, independents and Congress defectors (Singh 2017). This saga is being replayed in Meghalaya where the BJP has become a stakeholder in a coalition government despite having two legislators. On the other hand, the Congress is the single largest party but was outmanoeuvred by the BJP.


What is more, the “development” narrative is underpinned on the twin themes of “nationalism” and Hindutva, which are mired in the RSS’s ideology. While success was relatively simpler in Assam and Tripura because their politics essentially follows the trajectory of “mainstream” India, cracking the other states may be complex and a long haul. In the meantime, the BJP will make peace with the regional forces in the more problematic states and expediently forsake or dilute the Hindutva-specific agenda. It helps to have a government at the centre that can dangle and deliver carrots from time to time. But the BJP’s goal of a “Congress-mukt [free]” North East remains elusive.



Radhika Ramaseshan (ramaseshan.radhika@gmail.com) is consulting editor, Business Standard.
6 March 2018