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Review: The Last Battle of Saraighat: The Story of the BJP’s Rise in the North-east by Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha

A new book looks at the uptick in the BJP’s electoral fortune in the northeastern states and at where the region figures in the party’s imagination

books Updated: Jan 19, 2018 22:14 IST
Thangkhanlal Ngaihte
Thangkhanlal Ngaihte
Hindustan Times
BJP workers celebrate the party's victory in the Assam assembly elections in Guwahati on 19 May 2016.(PTI )

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s apparent inability to secure an enduring foothold in the Northeast is a factor that has undermined the party’s aspiration to be accepted as a truly national party. Much of the region still sees the BJP as a Hindu party whose ascendancy threatens their religious freedom. Until recently, the BJP had only a nominal, even fleeting, presence in the region’s electoral field outside of Assam. In terms of seats won, the “Modi wave”, which swept through mainland India in the 2014 general elections, only impacted two states out of eight. In Assam, the party won seven Lok Sabha seats out of 14 (it won four in 2009). In Arunachal Pradesh, the BJP wrested one seat (out of two) from the Indian National Congress, which won both seats in 2009. The Congress, though, remains in power at the state level in both states, as it also did in three others (Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya). Out of the three remaining states, Nagaland and Sikkim had governments by regional parties while the CPM remains entrenched in power in Tripura.

This picture began to change in 2016 when the BJP wrenched power from the Congress in Assam, winning 60 seats on its own in a 126-seat assembly. Subsequently, the BJP also captured power in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, though under less edifying circumstances. At present, the BJP is a junior partner in the Nagaland and Sikkim state governments.

What factors account for this uptick in the BJP’s electoral fortune? How does the party plan to consolidate itself in the region, which it sees as central to its idea of Akhand Bharat? Where does the Northeast figure in the BJP’s imagination? This is the subject of The Last Battle of Saraighat: The story of the BJP’s Rise in the North-east.

It should first be noted that the authors Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha are not independent analysts; they are campaigners for the BJP. The book is limited in its scope; half of it is devoted to Assam. The book lacked depth. It is more of a running commentary by two outside professionals, who have observed the region from close quarters. Nevertheless, this work is important because it is perhaps the first to attempt an electoral analysis on the Northeast. Secondly, it offers insights into the BJP’s thinking on the region as the party looks to make further inroads.

In the book’s telling, the BJP’s success in the Assam elections came from weaponising the illegal immigration issue, which has long haunted Assam. The party, following the RSS, neatly classifies Hindu migrants from Bangladesh as victims fleeing persecution and Muslim migrants as usurpers of land. The election was pitched as the “Last Battle of Saraighat”, evoking the legendary battle in 1671 where the Ahom kingdom defeated the Mughal “Muslim” invaders. This emotional play on a deeply sensitive and polarising issue, coupled with smart alliance making, resulted in the BJP winning the 2016 elections for the first time. The RSS’s longstanding presence in the state and the BJP in power at the centre helped.

The authors Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha. (Courtesy Penguin)

According to the authors, this victory is historic because it showcases the success of the BJP’s “secret sauce” of uniting local flavours and national ideological goals, showing that the roars of Jai Aai Axom and Bharat Mata ki jai are not incompatible.

The authors are deeply critical about Delhi’s “transactional” relationships with the region since independence, calling it “a history of political blunders.” Nehru, unsurprisingly, comes in for severe criticism for betraying Assam during the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946, which clubbed Assam with Muslim-dominated provinces, sidelining Assamese heroes like Gopinath Bordoloi and his “sledgehammer approach” to matters of the Northeast. Even Tagore is faulted for committing a “historical blunder” by omitting the Northeast in his song, Jana Gan Mana (written in 1911), which was later adopted as India’s national anthem.

As a strategy, the authors argue for the BJP to localize itself, absorb local history and folklore, align with local parties and not dictate policy from Delhi. They argue for an acknowledgement of historical political follies. They emphasize the need to listen and learn.

They exude optimism. One of their great insights is in recognizing that many of the insurgencies were not results of irreconcilable differences but “byproducts of a larger political malaise, a reaction against a series of the irresponsible actions of the state.” Much is redeemable with some genuine effort.

Read more: Assam turns saffron, hands Congress worst defeat

Compared with the apathetic, patronizing and status quoist policies of the past decades, all these sound refreshing. The Congress had long regarded the region as a captive constituency. People hunger for change. Is the BJP up to it? The problem is that the noble ideals in the book contrast starkly with the BJP’s divisive campaign in the Assam elections and after. Given the intractability of the immigration question, BJP’s victory in Assam can yet turn into a pyrrhic one. Again, is this a cynical ploy or a result of lessons learned? Is the party ready to keep its worst impulses in check and embrace our diversity? The answer to this question may decide whether the BJP’s stay in the Northeast will be ephemeral or enduring.

Thangkhanlal Ngaihte is an independent researcher. He lives in New Delhi

First Published: Jan 19, 2018 22:13 IST