New Delhi: Himanta Biswa Sarma, convener of the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) and Assam finance minister, is credited with being the architect of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) unprecedented surge in the North-East.
In an interview with Mint, Sarma spoke on a range of subjects including how the BJP went about scripting its historic electoral victory in Tripura earlier this month. Edited excerpts:
What led to the dramatic BJP victory in Tripura?
As I have spoken earlier also, post-2014 the North-East has seen unprecedented development activity. The people of Tripura had not seen railway connectivity since Independence. The North-East has seen unprecedented development activity and that is why I was all along convinced that as and when elections were called, BJP would definitely win. Of course, elections are little bit different so you need to put a certain strategy in place. You need to strengthen your organization from the grassroots level.
In Tripura, what was the turning point?
In the Tripura election, the immediate turning point was that we could forge an alliance between IPFT (Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura) and BJP. If you see the Left’s history, it has made inroads in Tripura due to the tribal people...BJP strengthened ourselves but we were aware that until and unless we consolidate tribal votes, it will not happen. At the same time, IPFT was demanding a separate state and a majority of Bengali people opposed it—so it was a Hobson’s choice for us.
There was a sincere analysis from within the party that we should not do this alliance because CPM will start a divisive campaign. There were also voices (arguing) that if we do not go for alliance there is no chance at all. (In politics) Either you take a risk or you don’t...it is better to take the risk rather than giving a walkover. Ultimately we took the plunge.
Out of 20 tribal seats, we won 19 and the only seat we lost was by 180 votes. Everyone has voted for the BJP-IPFT combine. At the same time it was important to completely marginalize the Congress party. We have been able to ensure that they do not get even 1% of the popular vote.
We have marginalized Trinamool Congress (TMC). All the important leaders, cadre and workers of both Congress and TMC joined us... we merged TMC to the extent that not a flag of TMC should be seen. It is the result of huge planning and taking huge risks. But all this would not have been possible unless people see that visible development has taken place.
NDA is now in power in six of the seven North-East states. How does this impact centre’s ‘Look East’ policy?
First of all, it sends a strong signal. When Congress was ruling Delhi it could not have all the North-East states. After many years this is happening... entire North-East region is now totally integrated to the party which is governing Delhi.
I believe that this is the right time to take forward development activity which we have discussed for so many years... I can see that the ‘Look East’ policy had a problem because if you wanted to construct transnational highway you required land for stretches. Today all these things are in place. All the roadblocks to projects are being cleared.
The BJP-NDA is now the dominant political force in North-East. Mizoram is the only state where Congress is in power. What is BJP’s strategy?
Once you have six out of seven states then I think politically it is fine and we should be content (with that). But yes as a political party we will contest Mizoram. But we do not want to make it a prestige issue that look you have six states why not number seven also. (In) Mizoram, we have to put a strategy in place and we are working on that.
Leaders of different parties, including Congress and TMC, have joined BJP, this is inorganic growth for BJP. How do you keep this flock together?
In the North-East, the equation is somewhat different. In North India, like (say in) Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, there is no vacuum in BJP. There are many leaders already in BJP...In North-East, the BJP had just 1% vote share in Tripura, meaning there was no significant leader with us. Whoever has joined BJP, they have got position of respect, they have got positions in the party which they had not got earlier in Congress.
BJP because it was a developing organization in the North-East, we could accommodate everyone in the mainstream. Like South, when we expand, you are in a position to accommodate all the people who initially join BJP.
In the North-East, BJP has got together a lot of regional parties. Whether it is NPP (National People’s Party) in Meghalaya or IPFT in Tripura. How does the BJP consolidate this in the larger scheme of things?
What we have done in the North-East is we have started our dialogue with regional parties. We created an informal code of conduct that we will not encourage any regional political party to join BJP. Initially when we started, we had encouraged many AGP leaders to join BJP and that has created a kind of friction in Assam...we made a course correction. Our enemy is Congress party, our enemy is not a regional party. We have discouraged people from joining BJP from regional political parties. (We have accorded) mutual respect, dignity and appreciation—this is working so I am confident that relations between regional political parties and the BJP will be durable and stable and go a long way.
Do you think that the lessons you have learnt in the North-East as a party, you will incorporate now when you go and expand in the South, specially in a state like Kerala?
I think that some of the things will be good where party is in a process of expansion. Like many things that we did in Tripura can be implemented in Kerala from an organisation point of view—how we have developed the organization, how we countered the CPM propaganda. There are many successful models which we have created in the North-East which can be implemented while we expand towards Odisha, West Bengal and of course in Kerala.
How did the people of Tripura see this demonstrative element to bring long-pending development?
People of Tripura have seen broad gauge for the first time. You will see that even up to remote southern Tripura, national highway is now being constructed. Air connectivity has visibly improved. The Prime Minister promised transformation in transportation and that is in action in Tripura. People have seen significant improvement and this has a huge demonstrative effect.