On Sunday, Tripura votes. The Left — which has ruled for 25 years in a row — is vulnerable. The mere fact that the BJP is the challenger is an astounding achievement, given that the party forfeited its deposit in 49 of the 50 seats it contested in 2013.
Nagaland votes on February 27. The BJP has managed to change the complexion of the state’s unipolar polity. It is in alliance with former CM Neiphiu Rio’s newly formed party, challenging the dominant Naga People’s Front (NPF). But here is the twist. The NPF remains in the NDA, and its leaders are still insisting that the BJP is an ally. The only certainty in Kohima’s complex politics is that the BJP will be in government post polls.
In Meghalaya, another Christian dominated state, the BJP itself knows it cannot hope to win 10 or 15 of the 60 seats. Yet, it is hopeful of power. Its NDA ally, the National People’s Party, is fighting elections separately. But if the Congress gets anything less than a majority, the NPP and the BJP will stitch up a post-poll alliance. This is the Manipur model — even if you get fewer seats, get to power through alliances.
What explains the BJP’s surge?
One, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s relentless focus on political power, ambition, and deeply held belief that every election has to be taken seriously and fought to win. Politically, the BJP knows it will struggle to replicate its performance in the North, West and Central India in 2019 — and needs to improve its performance in the east. Ideologically, the Sangh has long worked in the northeast. By expanding here, the BJP believes it is strengthening ‘nationalist forces’ and ‘national integration’.
Second, the party’s northeast in-charge, Ram Madhav, brings to elections an astute and professional style of political management. He starts preparations early and commissions surveys to understand issues and vulnerabilities of incumbents. Madhav has a team of younger campaign strategists who cut their teeth in the Assam elections, worked in Manipur, and have been stationed in Agartala, Shillong and Dimapur. They help with political messaging, give independent feedback on ticket distribution and alliances, sharpen the party’s campaign advertising and social media strategy — all of which is subject to Madhav’s approval. Madhav is also quick in his decision making, and has built relationships with other local political leaders which makes alliances possible.
Four, being in power at the centre is a huge asset. It helps the BJP make key governance promises. It gives the party additional resources, and allows it to unleash a campaign blitz with top ministers. It gives the political leadership access to intelligence and security agencies, which play a key role in the region. It also makes it an attractive political option for local elites and voters who believe that they will be able to extract more resources from a friendly central government.
Five, the BJP is the challenger in all these states. It does not have to bear the baggage of the Union Government’s past sins of neglect and oppression, associated with the Congress, and the abysmal development record of many of the regional parties. This allows it to carve out a message as a political insurgent, out to break with the past, promising ‘vikas’ and modernity.
And finally, the BJP is remarkably adaptable in the northeast and assumes a different avatar. It gives tickets to Christian candidates. It gives up the agenda of beef ban. It raises the issue of civil liberties and campaign against extra judicial executions. It brings together warring Meitei and Naga leaders under the same government in Manipur; it stitches together a disparate coalition of Bengalis and tribals in Tripura.
Whether the BJP gets to power in all three states or is able to sustain its rise are open questions. But the fact that it has expanded so rapidly in the most unlikely of regions is a remarkable political story of our times.