Mar 3 was a big day for northeast India as results were declared for the recent elections in Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya. Though the situation in Meghalaya is not clear, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made major inroads, winning the Red Fort in Tripura and putting an end to the 25-year reign of the Left front. In Nagaland, BJP and its ally, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, seems set to form a government.
Has the BJP’s acceptability increased to a point where minorities in minority-dominated states are beginning to see it as an alternative?
The answer is complicated, but we should be clear what the verdict is and what is not. It is certainly very significant, heralding a sea-change in the region’s politics. It is important to note that traditionally any party that ruled at the Centre had a natural advantage in the area, largely due to coalitions. But, what the BJP has done today is much more than that. They pulled off a massive organisational effort, achieving an especially notable victory in Tripura.
The fact that the BJP has made such strides into Meghalaya is significant; the fact that they lost an ally, but managed to get another alliance to win is also significant. The BJP’s capacity to attack any weakened oppositional space and the organisational machine behind it is spectacular.
The results also suggest the beginning of a possibly irreversible decline of the Left, similar to the situation in West Bengal. Their collapse after the election loss suggests these states may go in the same direction. For the Congress party the poor results in Tripura and in Nagaland indicate the party is unprepared and unable to take on political challenges.
The real challenge the BJP faces, however, will be from Kerala. It is believed that elections in notheastern states are minority-dominated but this is not the case. It is important to note that in Tripura only 9 percent of the population are Muslim and the principal achievement of the BJP there has been an extension of its Assam success, raising support among Hindu-Bengalis. They have also managed to strengthen their hold amongst the tribal populations.
The Congress seemed on the upswing after Rajasthan, winning two by-elections in Madhya Pradesh. So what then are the reasons for Congress’s failure?
The overall lesson from the northeast is the party doesn’t have a will to power. Of course, it is difficult to generalise from these three states to the rest of the country. The pattern of politics of the rest of the country is very different, the by-election results from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh signal for much broader constituencies than the three states put together. But, if one simply looks at the psychological signal, one doesn’t get the sense from the Congress of a party that is really serious about capturing power. It is true that government of n Tripura failed to show development. Though it brought peace between tribal and non-tribal sections of the population, which had threatened to explode, the CPM created its own image as a poor government of a poor state. Though it received substantial funds from the central government, it did not improve the infrastructure of the state significantly. Anti-incumbency pressure was also building. Congress was unable to take advantage of that pressure after consecutive elections, allowing space for the BJP. The BJP promised to institute a 7th Pay Commission, where in Tripura it was still paying 4th, promising its announcement within a fortnight of government formation. It is important to note that 150,000 employees and 60,000 pensioners would be immediately affected by that decision. So, people were looking for a change.
We must also agree that the BJP today is perhaps most formidable election machine that the country has witnessed in the last 70 years. The building organisation, booth level management, perception management, media management are all fresh and new. And it has worked, delivering several successes. But it would be unwise to draw a conclusion that this would make up for the BJP’s deficit in the rest of India. The signal from the northeastern states is a notable and significant one, but we should not forget the degree to which these constituencies are different from the country as a whole.