Election campaigns are not a time for strategic thinking. Professional campaign managers understand this better than anyone else and they emphasise the value of early planning and manoeuvring. This has become even more critical ever since alliance politics has become an important determinant of electoral outcomes in India.
The formal launching of the BJP-led Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA) in Guwahati — a Northeastern equivalent of the NDA — shows the BJP’s impressive capacity to learn, both from its successes and its failures. What has inspired the formation of this BJP-led alliance of regional parties, at least to some extent, is the narrative of an ideological victory in Assam as a result of the successful harnessing of regional aspirations.
As an electoral strategy to unseat the Congress in Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram, it could pay off handsomely. The line-up of regional parties and current and former chief ministers in NEDA is already quite impressive. The NEDA might indeed turn out to be an important step in bringing the entire Northeast into what Pratap Bhanu Mehta has termed “a BJP-dominant system”.
But the trouble is that there is a tension between the ideological space of regionalism in Northeast India and the ideological grandstanding that ruling party ideologues have engaged in since the BJP’s win in Assam. Largely because of the state’s geographical location and its recent history of political turmoil, there has been a great temptation to read into it a historic shift of ideological preferences. Indeed the commentariat too has been quite impressed, albeit a bit bewildered.
But interpreting election mandates is always tricky business. The very idea of a mandate, some political scientists argue, is a myth. Electoral systems are not designed so that voters can send a clear political message. A complex interplay between voters, and candidates and political parties — some distributing clientelistic benefits and others making policy announcements — produces electoral outcomes. Mandates are constructions of politicians, media commentators and professional pollsters.
The rise of regional parties in most parts of India, as it has become quite apparent by now, has not been at the expense of national parties, except during the early days of the regional party phenomenon. This is because both the Congress and the BJP have been rather creative in responding to the rise of regional political parties.
The BJP’s victory in Assam does not represent a shift from the established pattern of interplay between regional parties and national parties. In the politics of Assam, the basic template is still the one that defined the back and forth between the AGP and the Congress in the early 1990s. When the AGP won the 1986 elections in Assam, Congress leader Hiteswar Saikia understood the nature of the challenge better than any other politician and began acting proactively on multiple fronts. When the first AGP government came under a cloud of suspicion regarding complicity with ULFA’s actions — leading to the dismissal of the government and the proclamation of President’s Rule —AGP leader P. K. Mahanta began describing the AGP as “a regional party with a national outlook” to emphasise its distance from the ULFA. Saikia refused to yield the new ideological space of regionalism entirely to the AGP. A determined Saikia fought back and promised to make the Congress in Assam a “national party with a regional outlook”. The party’s electoral strategy in Assam continues to carry his imprint.
Indeed Himanta Biswa Sarma, now the BJP’s leading light and convener of NEDA, owes his long and successful career in the Congress to Saikia’s tactical generosity. Then an All Assam Students Union (AASU) activist, in trouble with the law for alleged links with the ULFA and implicated in serious criminal cases, Sarma was recruited by Saikia to fight the AASU on its own turf. With Saikia’s blessings he won the important position of general secretary of the Cotton College Students Union — until then an AASU stronghold. This is how Sarma’s career in mainstream politics was launched. His second innings with the BJP follows a similar logic.
In Assam there is evidence that its misinterpretation of the mandate may already be leading the BJP to act rather clumsily. The controversy over the auctioning of small oil fields in Assam may be a sign of things to come. The AGP has been sharply critical of the central government’s decision to put 12 small oil and gas fields on the auction block and invite global bids. The AASU has joined the opposition. There has already been a bandh in Upper Assam to protest the decision.
To anyone familiar with the “Tej dim tel nidio” (We will give blood but not oil) slogan of the Assam movement, the political sensitivity of a decision to privatise a resource that some regard as the people’s patrimony would not come as a surprise. The AGP says that the BJP should have discussed this sensitive issue with its allies prior to the announcement. AGP leader Mahanta blames the BJP’s disinterest in drafting a common minimum programme for the controversy. The path of “coalition dharma” in a frontier seems to be strewn with many worldly temptations for the BJP.
But even if one leaves aside the question of voter intentionality and treats mandates for what they are — social constructions — it is possible for societies to benefit from “mandate elections.” Some elections become mandate elections because of the expectations they raise and the goodwill a newly elected government commands because it is seen as a political alternative. Mandate elections provide windows of opportunity for policy innovation. The test of good leadership is the ability to seize upon these opportunities.
In Northeast India the issue is not whether the BJP delivers on the rhetoric of good governance and development, or succumbs to the agenda of Hindutva. If NEDA wishes to be more than just an anti-Congress electoral alliance it should boldly take on two of Northeast India’s most difficult issues: (a) the ambiguities of citizenship that grow out of the region’s long history as a settlement frontier and the conflicting memories and competing narratives of the Partition; and (b) the awkward inter-state border disputes. The illusive search for authentic borders won’t end them; there has to be a pragmatic acceptance of the sanctity of colonial district borders as the best we have got.
There is nothing in the actions and statements of the new government and those related to NEDA so far to suggest that a bold policy agenda on these issues is on the cards.