Prima facie, it can seem that India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been able to achieve its objective of ushering in a Congress-mukt (free) India in the northeast — especially in Tripura, where it has come to power ending 25 years of Left rule.
However, such a conclusion will be facile. The reason is that in Tripura, for instance, the BJP has succeeded in coopting virtually the entire 30-plus per cent support base of the Congress. As a result, it can be said that the BJP in Tripura at present is really the Congress by another name. True, there will be elements in the party who are ideologically close to the BJP, mostly as a result of the groundwork done by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the state. But their numbers cannot be large considering that the BJP’s vote share in the last three elections hovered around one per cent while the Congress’s voting percentage was consistently above 30 per cent. It is difficult to believe, therefore, that the BJP’s jump from zero seats in the state assembly to 40-odd was the outcome of an entirely new party coming into existence.
It is not easy to pinpoint what is behind the wholesale transfer of the Congress base to the BJP. The BJP’s seemingly limitless resources have been mentioned in this context, but the main explanation apparently lies in the continuing popular belief in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of development. Even if the expectations in this respect have not quite been fulfilled in other parts of the country, where the BJP has consequently suffered reverses — as in the recent Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh by-elections — the hope of the people in the northeast about employment-oriented growth has not been dimmed.
One reason why it hasn’t is the failure of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) to perceptively boost Tripura’s economy. Similar inabilities of the governments in the two other states that went to polls along with Tripura — Meghalaya and Nagaland — undoubtedly played a role in undermining the prospects of the parties in power.
What the turn in the BJP’s favour means is that the party has been able to overcome to a very large extent the disadvantages posed by its image as a party of Hindu chauvinists, which will impose its fetishes about not eating beef and pursue its policies denigrating Christian missionaries.
Considering that the northeast has always lagged behind the rest of India where infrastructure and economic growth are considered, the possibility of development, with the added advantage of the new rulers in the states being able to act in sync with the Centre, evidently had an irresistible appeal. This attraction could not but be boosted by the anti-incumbency factor in a state like Tripura where the CPM had been in power for the last quarter of a century. It is no longer enough for a chief minister to gain votes by being the “poorest” person to hold the position, as outgoing Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar did. The ideology of “simple living and high thinking”, which used to attract the ordinary people to Communism, has been eroded — first, by the not-so-abstemious lifestyle of some of the comrades and, second, by a sluggish economy. Any promise, therefore, of rapid material advancement pays political dividends.
Sarkar may have also paid the price for being a follower of the Prakash Karat-line of the CPM’s internal politics that refuses to align with the Congress to fight the BJP. It appears, therefore, that the Marxists in Tripura did not take the challenge posed by the BJP seriously enough and continued to regard the Congress as the main adversary, even if it could see its own hold over voters fading away. Had the party been able to focus more aggressively on what it sees as the BJP’s politics of communal polarization, it might have been to save its last remaining bastion.
What the outcome points to is the need for a party to constantly reinvent itself. The CPM has failed to do so, sticking instead to an ideology that died with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Neither did the Congress, which was seemingly clueless about its members fleeing in droves to the Trinamool Congress and the CPM. It also did not pay enough attention to the region with Congress party president Rahul Gandhi failing to match the energetic campaigning of Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.
In contrast, the BJP provides an excellent example of donning a new garb because it has been able to develop opportunism to a fine art. For one, it has no compunctions about gobbling up an entire party to win. Although such an act of absorption does not speak well of a party that has thus been swallowed, it shows that the BJP will stop at nothing to go past the winning line without any thought to whether its act will cause indigestion. The BJP evidently believes in living in the present.
For another, the BJP has no hesitation about dispensing with its reservations about beef in order to get the parties in Meghalaya and Nagaland on board, confirming what Asaduddin Owaisi of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen had said about the cow being “mummy” in north India, but yummy in the northeast.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst.