Speaking at a book launch function in New Delhi on November 24, 2017, the BJP leader, Ram Madhav, said that unlike the RSS, the BJP is unashamedly interested in winning elections and gaining power. Sharing the dais with a slew of BJP ministers from the Northeast and RSS leaders, he was in a triumphant mood. The previous year, the BJP had won the assembly election in Assam, the most populous state in the Northeast. Manipur followed in 2017. The book, The Last Battle of Saraighat, is a chronicle of how these victories were won.
Madhav went on to narrate how the BJP has evolved from being a party of India’s “cow belt” to become a party of choice in places like the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir. He painted a rosy picture for the future. Just three months later, the BJP added Tripura to its score while also becoming a partner in the new governments of Nagaland and Meghalaya. Mass defections had already led to the collapse of the Congress government in Arunachal Pradesh. With the defeat of the Congress in Mizoram in late 2018, the goal of “Congress-mukt” Northeast has, apparently, been achieved.
This surely should be a time of celebration for the BJP. But it was not to be. The new year saw the entire Northeast region besieged with hysteria over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB). As the bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, agitations took on a feverish pace. All of a sudden, the BJP, which thought it had just conquered the Northeast, found itself without friends. It became BJP versus the rest.
What’s happening? What explains the BJP’s dramatic rise and its sudden look of vulnerability and loss over the now-lapsed CAB? What are the prospects of the BJP in the region, going forward?
First, one needs to qualify the claim of “Congress mukt” Northeast. It is true that all the eight states of the region now have non-Congress governments. But between Manipur, Meghalaya, Assam and Mizoram, the Congress still holds close to 80 assembly seats. This is significant because the Congress had to fight the last round of assembly elections in the face of massive anti-incumbency and a hostile government at the Centre. It would seem that in its mad rush to deliver on the promise of “Congress-mukt” Northeast, the BJP paints a much rosier picture of its position by simply counting all non-Congress votes as its own. This is misleading because in Nagaland and Meghalaya, the BJP is only a junior partner while it is not even part of the government in Sikkim and Mizoram.
Second, the most important factor for the BJP’s dramatic rise in the Northeast is the simple fact of it being in power in Delhi. The Northeastern states are small, deficit-ridden states and they need a friendly government at the Centre to keep them afloat. And when the government at the Centre has a clear goal of snatching the region from the grip of its bête noire, the Congress, changing colour to saffron becomes a necessity for survival. Not many need prompting.
Third, the image of the Narendra Modi government as a strong and decisive government, one that gets things done, played a role. People were fed up of the Congress’s status quoist orientation. The energy and enthusiasm that the BJP brought to these elections and its employment of election professionals to run surveys and manage its messaging, helped.
Fourth, there was a strong anti-incumbency wave against Congress governments in Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram. The same goes for the communist government in Tripura. The BJP showed up as a viable alternative at the right time.
Lastly, the BJP carefully orchestrated its campaign to focus on local issues and concerns. In Madhav’s own words: “We didn’t allow the debate to turn to national issues.” This was because the BJP knew it will not gain votes by harping on its core ideology. Indeed, it is difficult to see how the Northeast people will ever find the BJP’s pet themes — Hindu, Hindi, cow, temple, hyper nationalism — endearing.
This was a clever strategy and it worked for the short term. But the limitation of this strategy — projecting an image contrary to its character — shows up soon in the form of the CAB. In the CAB, the Northeasterners saw the true face of the BJP and they were not happy.
To their credit, the authors of The Last Battle of Saraighat, Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha, acknowledged that the BJP will need to undergo an “ideological churning” if it is to strengthen itself in the Northeast. “It would do the party a great service if the strategy decentralises itself and focus is given to local alliances and dynamics than an attempt to dictate politics from the Centre,” they write.
The BJP will have to wrestle with this sooner or later. Back in March 2018, the BJP president, Amit Shah, had set a target of winning 21 Lok Sabha seats (out of 25) in the Northeast in the general election. As promised, the party will do all it can to win those seats. Ram Madhav is back doing what he does best: Cobbling up electoral alliances with regional parties. On March 13, the Asom Gana Parishad — which had exited the BJP-led government in Assam in January — returned to the BJP’s fold. Others will follow.
Repressive laws like the AFSPA help mobilise people in between elections, but they have never decided election outcomes. The same may become true of the CAB. Elections are decided by multiple factors and ideology is only one among them. Yet, if the BJP fails to address ideological issues, it will always feel like a stranger in the Northeast.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 15, 2019, under the title ‘Stranger in the Northeast’. The writer is assistant professor in political science at Churachandpur College, Lamka, Manipur.