North-East: The new ground zero of Indian politics
Last Saturday, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, rewrote the political lexicon of the North-East. By winning Tripura in a landslide and now sniffing power in Nagaland and Meghalaya, the saffron party has replaced the Congress—just like it has done nationally—as the principal political pole in the region. If it indeed does succeed in forming the government in Nagaland and Meghalaya, then the BJP would be in power in six of the seven states in the region.
The BJP’s audacious display in unseating the five-term Left regime led by the popular Manik Sarkar can compare to the compelling regime change effected by Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress—when they ejected the Left Front that had ruled West Bengal for 35 years.
This is actually a very critical moment in Indian politics. This tectonic shift comes at a time when the BJP is readying not just for electoral challenges to its incumbent regimes in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, but also for the 17th general election due in little over a year from now. The electoral coup in Tripura, especially by a party that managed a little under 2% of the vote share in the previous assembly election (49 of BJP’s candidates lost their deposit), definitely tilts the odds.
Especially since the Congress, an erstwhile political power in the state and the region, drew a blank in the Tripura poll—only confirming the worst fears about its rapidly shrinking national electoral footprint. After Gujarat, where they just fell short of pulling off what would have been a potential game-changing upset against the incumbent BJP regime, hopes had abound about a Congress recovery. The recent wins in the by-elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh only fuelled these sentiments. Further, the party’s president Rahul Gandhi had acquired a new combative persona, both online and offline, lending more credence to this argument.
While each election has its own fault line (and hence drawing general conclusions are often off the mark), there is no doubt that the reversal in the North-East could sow the seeds of self-doubt in the Congress ahead of the crucial showdown in Karnataka due in the next two months.
On the other hand, the BJP has every reason to feel pleased and will have its tail up in the upcoming electoral clash. Most reassuring to them would be the fact that Brand Modi endures. Not just in 2014, but in almost every election thereafter, Modi has been their trump card. The close shave in Gujarat, disquiet over the disruptions caused by structural changes like demonetization of high value currencies, rollout of the Goods and Services Tax, continued crackdown on black money, and the negative chatter in social media and among the power elite of Delhi would have us believe that Modi’s charisma was on the ebb. Opinion, always fickle-minded, will now swing back to the previous hypothesis that the Modi juggernaut cannot be stopped.
Regardless, the good news is that the North-East of India, largely neglected for the last seven decades (the alienation captured so poignantly in the episode involving two girls from the North-East in the cult film Chak de India; worse, the habit of some in mainland India using pejoratives to refer to denizens from the region), has moved to the nation’s centre stage.
Presumably, the politics will enable the economics, especially with respect to the long pending infrastructure projects—some of which open up commercial connections to South China and South-East Asia, thereby providing new trade routes and a source of major economic activity for the region. Last year, the union government announced a Rs45,000 crore package to develop infrastructure in the region, partly funded by the Japanese government.
Walking the talk will be key to delivering the promise of development made by Modi during the campaign.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus.Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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