The BJP is back on a winning streak
The Northeast victory should be especially sweet for the BJP because it comes against the run of play in recent months when the party returned to power in Gujarat but with a significantly reduced majority (in terms of seats; its vote share remained about the same) and lost by-elections to two Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthancolumns Updated: Mar 03, 2018 19:45 IST
The Northeast will have to rank as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) most significant electoral story since it won the 2014 Parliamentary elections. Sure, it swept Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, last year, but it had been in power in the state before. And so, despite Uttar Pradesh sending 80 parliamentarians to the Lok Sabha as compared to the Northeast’s 25, the BJP’s electoral gains in the latter matter more than its win in the former.
Most of these gains have manifested themselves since 2016, although, as the BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, like to point out, they have been working in the region for years. There are eight states in the Northeast (including Sikkim). The Congress is in power in Mizoram, where elections are due later this year; and the Sikkim Democratic Front (an NDA partner) in Sikkim, where elections will be held in 2019, along with the Parliamentary elections. That year will also see elections in Arunachal Pradesh, where the BJP came to power in 2016 by engineering a large defection from the Congress, which won the 2014 polls in the state. The BJP won Assam for the first time in 2016; Manipur for the first time in 2017 (although it was allied with the party that ruled the state briefly in the late 1990s, the Manipur State Congress Party); and on Saturday, it won Tripura; which has been ruled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for 25 years, and Nagaland, as part of a victorious alliance. The political situation in Meghalaya seems fluid as this column is being written (on Saturday evening), but if the BJP plays its cards right, the state could end up being the 21st to be ruled by the NDA (and, if the track record in elections since May 2014 is any indication, the party usually plays its cards right).
Uttar Pradesh is in the Hindi heartland, where the BJP’s politics have always had some appeal. In six of the eight Northeastern states – Assam is the exception – the BJP had none. In an interview to this paper in January, BJP President Amit Shah said the party expected to win more Lok Sabha seats in the Northeast than it had in 2014, when it won 10. That should help the party offset some of the losses it is bound to suffer in the Hindi belt (Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh) where it won 149 seats out of a total of 160 last time, a record surely that no party, not even the BJP itself, can hope to repeat.
The victory should also be especially sweet for the BJP because it comes against the run of play in recent months when the party returned to power in Gujarat but with a significantly reduced majority (in terms of seats; its vote share remained about the same) and lost by-elections to two Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthan. Much will depend on how the party fares in Karnataka (where elections are due in a few months) and Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh (where elections will be held towards the end of the year), but for now, the BJP has reason to believe it is back to its winning ways. Momentum matters in politics, and the BJP, which has built perhaps the most formidable electioneering machine in the history of independent India recognises this.
So, what worked for the BJP, other than the fact that as the party not in power in most of these states, the anti-incumbency sentiment worked to its benefit?
For one, the fact that the RSS has been working in the Northeast for decades helped. The RSS has always maintained that it doesn’t campaign for the BJP, but its presence in the region made the BJP’s entry easier – and also provided key organisers who moved from the ideological parent to the party.
Then, there’s the people the BJP put in charge of the Northeast: General secretary Ram Madhav who, within the party, is rated highly for his ability to professionally manage election campaigns; and Himanta Biswa Sarma, widely considered the most networked politician in the Northeast. Sarma was, until 2015, a member of the Indian National Congress and joined the BJP soon after. In 2016, the BJP made him convener of the Northeast Democratic Alliance.
The BJP has also been smart with its alliances in the Northeast. For instance, it was quick to forge an alliance with the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (Nagaland), which was formed only last year. The BJP has an alliance with the state’s ruling Naga People’s Front that continues in the Centre; the party broke off its partnership with the NPF in the state last year after it realised that there was significant sentiment against the government, which has seen three chief ministers in five years. In Meghalaya, it fought the elections separately from its ally at the Centre, the National People’s Party, but with an implicit understanding that the two would ally if doing so would give them a chance of forming the government.
Finally, the BJP seems to have been able to successfully pitch the promise of development – a huge draw in a region that has always felt hard done by on this front – and, equally successfully, downplay some of the negative aspects associated with it. For instance, its Hindi-belt agenda of a beef ban found no mention in the Northeast.
Maybe that’s the larger lesson the BJP should take into 2019: development usually trumps diet.