The Lakshadweep model helps BJP win North-East
In May 2017, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress were bickering over the Narendra Modi government’s three-year development record, BJP president Amit Shah was touring Lakshadweep to strengthen the party organization in the archipelago with just one Lok Sabha seat and an overwhelming Muslim demography. This is the spirit the BJP showed in the recently concluded state assembly elections in Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland. Together, these three states contribute just five seats to the Lok Sabha, but that did not reduce the BJP’s hunger in going all out for them.
In Tripura, the BJP has achieved a historic mandate by ending the 25-year rule of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM. In just five years, the BJP has managed to increase its vote share from 1.5% to 43%. In Nagaland, the jump was from 1.8% in 2013 to 15.3% in 2018. The BJP will most likely form the next government in Kohima along with the Neiphiu Rio-led National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) and others. In Meghalaya too, with just two assembly seats, the BJP is set to be part of the ruling alliance led by Conrad Sangma’s Nationalist People’s Party (NPP). The Congress, the single largest party in Meghalaya, is set to occupy the opposition benches.
It was not long ago that the BJP was thought of as a Hindi heartland party. There too, it was ridiculed as a Brahmin-Bania party. Soon, it will be in power in seven of the eight states in the North-East—a region with a very different demography from the Hindi heartland. Each North-Eastern state comes with its own set of challenges. In Tripura, the BJP had to face the onslaught of the well-entrenched Left’s political machinery, while at the same time negotiating the divide between the Bengali and tribal populations. The party allied with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) without endorsing its demand for a separate tribal state.
In Nagaland, the Modi government had to maintain a delicate balance between the peace negotiations under way with the Naga insurgents and the interests of Manipur, where it leads a coalition government. At the heart of the issue is the insurgents’ demand for a Nagalim which would include areas from other states, particularly Manipur. The BJP’s tightrope walk is indeed admirable as long as it lasts. In both Nagaland and Meghalaya, the BJP being part of the ruling alliance is a significant achievement given the predominantly Christian demography and the sway the Church holds over local politics.
Defying its image of an ideologically rigid party, the BJP has been happy to let go of its insistence on a beef ban in the North-Eastern states. The party has also been surprisingly good at finding allies and running coalition governments—a trait not often associated with a national party on an upswing. All this requires political nous, but, more importantly, resources. The healthy state of the BJP’s coffers certainly helps. The fact that the party is in power at the Centre also comes in handy when dealing with allies, especially in the North-East.
But resources and power in New Delhi are not the entire story. The BJP has been in power at the Centre in the past too. And it could always have pressed more resources than, say, the CPM in Tripura. It is Shah’s Lakshadweep model of electioneering that has helped power the BJP to victory in state after state. The BJP may not win Lakshadweep in 2019—it secured merely 0.4% of the votes in 2014—but the archipelago is a metaphor for the party’s absolute refusal to offer a walkover. The Modi-Shah BJP will fight for every seat, no matter how remote its location or how unfavourable its demography for the party’s victory prospects.
Sunil Deodhar—the man being credited for the Tripura victory—was sent by Shah to Tripura in 2014 when the state election was not on anyone else’s radar. The Congress, on the other hand, did not even care to put up a fight in Tripura and Nagaland. This despite the fact it had 36.5% vote share in Tripura in 2013 and could have been in the best position to exploit the anti-incumbency against the CPM. Perhaps a resource crunch is driving the Congress to focus on major state elections and not spread itself too thinly across the country. But party president Rahul Gandhi’s energetic campaign in Gujarat still ended up being in a losing cause. In Meghalaya, the fight shown now counts for little as it was not good enough to secure a simple majority.
Till such time as the Karnataka elections arrive, the narrative of the BJP’s wins in the North-East will hold sway. In this age of rapid information flow, momentum can be a great thing. The BJP’s win in Uttar Pradesh helped its membership drive in Tripura. There is already speculation about what the BJP’s Tripura win will mean for West Bengal given the commonality of Bengali-speaking populations in both states. Gandhi and the Congress should realize now, if they haven’t already, that they are facing a rival in BJP which will not relent, regardless of how dominant a position it already commands.
What are the lessons the Congress should learn from its defeat in the North-Eastern states? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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