BJP’s Northeast success 

BJP’s Northeast success 

Subir Bhaumik,

Three Northeast Indian states recently returned BJP led coalitions to power. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his senior cabinet ministers were down in Northeastern state capitals to attend swearing in ceremonies with BJP patriarchs like L K Advani and M M Joshi in tow. Modi sought to emphasize a ‘great growing connect between the mainland and the northeast’. The BJP leadership will build on the momentum to boost campaigns in other states like Karnataka where polls are due. But analysts have been quick to point out that the Northeast and the rest of India are different and a victory in Tripura may not be repeated in Karnataka, simply because Tripura has not and Karnataka has experienced BJP governments. Some also pointed to a greater impetus for Opposition alliances if the aftermath of the BJP victories, specially between the Left and Congress, but one cannot leave Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress out. Mamata blamed the Left defeat in Tripura on “arrogance and over confidence” and took the Congress apart for refusing alliance with Trinamul in Tripura which she said explained the very poor show put up by India’s oldest party in the tiny state where it was always the main Opposition challenger to the Left.

Mamata is keen to lead an anti-BJP alliance and wants both the Left and the Congress to join the bandwagon. She is already in touch with the likes of Odisha’s Navin Patnaik and Bihar’s Nitish Kumar and UP’s Mayawati and Mulayam Singh. The defeat of Manik Sarkar helps the process. The much respected Tripura Marxist leader was a strong supporter of CPI(M) leader Prakash Karat ‘s line of left unity (as opposed to left and democratic unity which would mean a Left-Congress alliance) and his defeat and drop in clout leaves the Bengal CPI(M) and party secretary Sitaram Yechury to open a fresh dialogue with Congress leaders for a broad based anti Modi alliance.

Of the three states in Northeast that went to polls, the BJP victory in the Left ruled state of Tripura was doubtlessly stunning. Tripura has been the safest Left bastion since the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front first swept to power in 1978. Only once since then, in 1988, did the Left Front lose to the Congress-TUJS (Tripura Upajati Juba Samity) alliance, but it returned to power in 1993 and been in power since then, with Manik Sarkar as Chief Minister since 1998. So for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to score a spectacular and convincing victory in a state where it did not have a single legislator so far was not only unexpected but left all gasping.

By striking an alliance with the tribal Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) which demands a separate tribal State of Twipraland it wants carved out of the autonomous district council of the state, the BJP assured itself of a sweep in the 20 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes. The IPFT has close-connect to the separatist National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), and the CPI(M) cadre is no match for the armed guerrillas who back the IPFT’s young militant cadres in the remote hill interiors. But by not endorsing the Twipraland demand and by not giving the IPFT the majority of the ST reserved seats (11 contested by the BJP, nine by the IPFT), the BJP sent a clear message it would not be a junior partner to its ally, as in Jammu and Kashmir. That got the BJP much of the tribal support, and also of Bengalis in rural remote interiors who saw support to the BJP as their safest security option.

Then by absorbing almost the entire Congress-turned Trinamool Congress leadership in its fold, the BJP ensured that it ran away with the 30% Congress votebank. In Tripura, the fight has always tended to be between the Left and the anti-Left. With the Congress decimated and seen as the B-team of the Left, with Congress president Rahul Gandhi avoiding any attack against Mr. Sarkar, the anti-Left voter had no option but to go with the BJP as it were seen as the only viable option to dethrone the Left. The middle-class Bengali vote swung the saffron way because of the Left’s poor track record in employment generation, forcing Tripura’s best brains to seek jobs in Pune, Bangalore and Hyderabad. Mr. Sarkar’s refusal to meet the captains of IT industry during a 2015 Tripura Conclave organised to leverage Agartala’s emergence as India’s third Internet gateway did not go down well with GenNext, tribals and Bengalis alike. That explains the BJP sweep in Agartala and other urban areas. So, with the tribal vote and the middle class urban Bengali vote swinging its way, all that the BJP needed was a small swing in the rural Bengali vote.

While much of that remained with the Left (which is only marginally behind the BJP in overall vote share), in the deep interiors dominated by the IPFT’s militant cadre, the Bengali settlers seem to have voted against the Left, as it was seen to be no longer capable of defending them in the event of a resurgent tribal insurgency. Fear of the unknown always haunts the rural Bengalis who have borne the brunt of tribal insurgency since the violence of 1980 — and a dominant BJP with a majority of its own was their best bet to tame the IPFT and nip the Twipraland demand in the bud. Politics is the art of managing the contradictions and it seems the BJP poll managers have now achieved Kautilyan perfection.

That the party had 35 MLAs of its own in a 60-member house means it could nip in the bud the separate Twipraland demand of ally IPFT and control it. In chief minister Biplab Deb, the BJP now has an unassuming and very open-minded leader in Tripura who could take the first steps to tackle unemployment by getting Infotech investments (Agartala is India’s third IT gateway) and resolve problems of tribal landlessness by decommissioning the 10MW Dumbur dam that can free thousands of acres of fertile land for reclaiming.

Despite not getting a clear majority in Nagaland and despite the Congress emerging as the single largest party in Meghalaya, the BJP ended up forming governments in both these Christian-majority States. Again, the BJP seems to have managed the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Issac-Muivah) — NSCN (IM) — to back its bid for power with its new-found ally and the Naga People’s Front (NPF) may join in as well, all apparently to pave the way for a final settlement of the Naga imbroglio. Failure to deliver a final settlement after more than two years of signing the Framework Agreement would have normally jeopardised the poll prospects of the BJP, especially after it fell out with the ruling NPF, but party general secretary Ram Madhav’s political engineering in triggering a successful split and then taming the main NPF and the NSCN is something that would have done Kautilya proud. But the fact remains that in Nagaland, the BJP has to deliver a final settlement in a way that pleases most, if not all, rebel and political factions. This is no easy task in a very divided tribal society. In Chief Minister Neiphieu Rio, the BJP has a difficult ally because he can play his own game with backing from the NSCN (Issac-Muivah faction).

In Meghalaya, the BJP managed to dethrone Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, who has led the Congress to emerge as the single largest party with 22 seats in the 60- member house. The BJP got only two seats but it used money and much else to work out a coalition with the regional parties which could claim majority. But now to ensure the survival of such a coalition will not be been easy task in Meghalaya’s ‘aya ram gaya ram’ (come and go) politics where political loyalties are non-existent.

Most regional parties in Northeast now prefer the BJP as their national partner, and not the Congress which has a tribal base — but managing the contradictions will be a full-time task. Meanwhile, the Tripura results will definitely worry one Chief Minister in particular — Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. It is easy to see why she spoke of Left arrogance and Congress missteps in not aligning with her party in Tripura.  BJP insiders say that Modi will now mount much pressure on Mamata to concede a Teesta agreement which Delhi sees as important to boost Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina’s chances in the forthcoming parliament elections. Tripura governor and once BJP’s West Bengal chief Tathagata Ray has already strongly pitched for the Teesta agreement, saying it was Bangladesh’s “inalienable right as a lower riparian state” to get a better share of Teesta waters. Now BJP’s new chief minister in Tripura Biplab Deb, by telephoning Hasina before his swearing-in to seek her ‘blessings and cooperation’, has send a signal that the saffrons will back Awami League strongly. Analysts say Deb would have got a clearance from his party bosses before calling a foreign leader like Hasina. As someone with strong roots in Bangladesh, Deb may be the bridge between Awami League and Delhi so long as the BJP runs the Indian government. Tripura’s leaders, irrespective of political affiliations, have always been close to the Awami League and Deb may be no different. But a relative political lightweight, he would clearly need a green light from the Sangh and the BJP to display public bonhomie with Hasina.