North-east polls change 2019 game: Modi’s gains in Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya give BJP new momentum

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Agartala, Kohima and Shillong are so far away from the heat and dust of Delhi that elections in the north-east have too often in the past been seen by political and intellectual elites in the capital as passing footnotes, at best. The tectonic shift in 2018 has been the lifting of these self-limiting blinkers. The planting of the saffron flag in Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya, in that sense, is not only a historic advance for BJP, but also a significant shift of registers for our polity as a whole.

Going beyond limited tactical discussions about the rise or fall of political parties, these elections have once again refocussed attention on deeper subterranean forces reshaping the ground beneath our feet. The Congress revival in Gujarat, the emergence of a feisty Rahul Gandhi and the incredible loot by Nirav Modi may have given the appearance of taking some of the sheen off BJP’s ambitions for 2019. But make no mistake: the north-east result means that the great ideological Kurukshetra that has defined the republic since its inception – between red Left and saffron Right – just got remapped.

The saffron push in the north-east has long been in the making. It has not been constructed on the quicksand of opportunistic turncoat alliances alone. In Tripura, a few weeks ago, BJP did not even have a representative at the councillor level. In the 2013 assembly polls, it won just 1.5% vote-share and zero seats. To go from that shunya base to bagging 35 of 60 assembly seats and 43% of vote-share on its own steam is a stupendous achievement, especially in a state with a large tribal population.

Only AAP in Delhi 2013 or NTR’s TDP in Andhra in the early 1980s offered such Cinderella political start-up stories. But they were hitherto unknown parties. BJP, on the other hand, has always been an ideological construct, working closely with the Sangh and its targeted grassroots outreach in the north-east.

The fact that it won not only the urban areas around Agartala (Congress bastions) but also huge swathes of forested tribal areas (Left bastions) across south, central and eastern Tripura, apart from 8 seats won by its ally IPFT, is a measure of its advance. In Nagaland too, BJP’s 12 seats with 15.3% vote-share (up from 1.8%) illustrate the wider trend of its emergence as the predominant national party in the region. It combined a good ground game with an adroit alliance with Neiphiu Rio’s NDPP, which pulled in 16 seats.

Meghalaya is a different story: No political party has ever won an absolute majority here since 1976 when then chief minister Williamson A Sangma merged a faction of APHLC with Congress. But even here BJP has significantly increased its vote share from 1.3% to 9.6% and with Conrad Sangma’s 19 seats for NPP and UDP’s 6, the game is well and truly afoot in Shillong.

The political message is more than just about the symbolism of Congress being reduced literally to a zero in both Tripura (from 10 seats in 2013) and Nagaland (from 8 seats in 2013). BJP can now legitimately claim to be more than a Hindi, Hindu party and the true inheritor of Congress’s traditional role as the only pan-Indian party to beat.

The saffron flag already flies in Guwahati, Imphal and Itanagar. After Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya, Mizoram is the only state where BJP is not a major player. This is also the first BJP triumph in a direct faceoff with the Left. From the rising body count in Kerala’s Kannur to the 9 BJP workers who have died in the north-east this year, these ideological wars have been visceral and bloody.

This is why Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to respond, in his moment of triumph, with the wordplay of ‘chot ka javab vote’ (vote has answered the wound) and the imagery of ‘kesriya’ (saffron) as the colour of the rising sun vis-à-vis the setting red.

The Left now faces a serious existential crisis. It will pit its traditional commissars who forced a doctrinaire line of fighting the Sangh Parivar alone against the pragmatists who advocate a tactical alliance with Congress ahead of 2019.

For Congress, the lesson is that it only does well with strong regional satraps, like Amarinder Singh in Punjab, or when there is strong anti-incumbency. The north-east result has dissipated some of the momentum Rahul Gandhi gained after Gujarat. Questions will again be asked about how Congress manages the unfolding realpolitik in Shillong – as they were in Goa – and BJP heads into Karnataka elections with new wind behind its sails.

Northeastern states account for 25 Lok Sabha seats. NDA won only 10 of these in 2014. For 2019, BJP will be hoping to offset possible relative losses in say Rajasthan or elsewhere with gains in this region. In Gujarat, Modi won successive elections through an electoral calculus of constantly bringing in new voter groups – such as women – to replace older ones that were being weaned away. For 2019, by focussing specifically on younger first-time voters and this push in the north-east, Modi and Amit Shah are hoping to replicate the same political model. For the opposition, the coming electoral battles will be as much about perceptions as about fighting this hungry political machine.

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