BJP’s N-E triumph is a remarkable feat

Mar 03, 2023 08:10 AM IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push and three key strategies helped the party win over a region it once had no presence in

Narendra Modi’s election as Prime Minister (PM) in 2014 presaged the most dramatic alignment of political power equations in India’s northeastern states since Independence. Until 2016, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had never been elected to power in any of the region’s eight states. It had not even finished as the second-best party in an electoral contest in any of these states — whether in national or assembly polls. Yet, by 2023, it held office in six of eight northeastern states. Four of them on its own steam, with BJP chief ministers (CMs) heading multi-party coalitions: Tripura (2018 and 2023), Assam (2016 and 2021), Arunachal Pradesh (2016 and 2019) and Manipur (2017 and 2022). Outside of the local politics of Agartala, Kohima and Imphal, the results of the latest assembly elections indicate that the processes that drove this wider reframing of the regional political chessboard over the last eight years have deepened and taken greater root. This has significant implications for national politics as we head into the 2024 election.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who visited the North-East over 50 times in the last four years, views the region as an Indian growth engine (ANI) PREMIUM
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who visited the North-East over 50 times in the last four years, views the region as an Indian growth engine (ANI)

In Tripura, the BJP did not even have a councillor-level elected representative before the 2018 assembly polls and won zero seats in 2013 with 1.5% votes. In 2018, when it swept out the Left, which had ruled Agartala continuously for over two decades, the party’s rise could have been seen as a black swan event. Five years later, and despite changing its CM less than a year ago, it has retained the state after trouncing a once-unthinkable Left and Congress alliance. While the Tipra Motha’s rise indicates a shift in a section of the state’s tribal voters, the fact that the BJP won 39% vote-share in a state where it was non-existent until 2018, is a good indicator of the deeper shift in the polity.

In Nagaland, where the BJP was a junior partner in the previous government, the party has replicated its previous tally and increased its vote share to 18.9% in a clear majority for the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP)-BJP alliance. In Meghalaya, where the BJP was allied with Conrad Sangma’s ruling National People’s Party until just before elections, it has replicated its previous performance.

What is the wider political message of these poll results? First, they legitimately allow the BJP to claim that it is more than a Hindi-Hindu party, and thus the national inheritor of the Congress’s old mantle as the only pan-Indian party.

As much as 87.9% of Nagaland is Christian. So is 74.5% of Meghalaya. Most are from tribal communities. As is about one-third of Tripura. In 2018, after its first big successes in the North-East, Amit Shah emphatically declared that “the taunt about us that the BJP is not an akhil-Bhartiya [all-India] party has been proved wrong. We now have an MP in Ladakh. We govern in Kohima and we also govern in Kutch. The North-East victories have brought the all-India character of the BJP in front of the whole world.” Five years later, that claim has been strengthened further.

Second, these results underscore the continuing electoral retreat of the Congress from states it dominated for decades. The BJP acquired a permanent address in the region through a differentiated political strategy. This varied greatly from its imagery in north India and the Hindi heartland. The new BJP, under Modi, basically advanced in the North-East due to three broad reasons. One, mergers and acquisitions. Like a corporation looking to expand into new areas, the BJP focused on looking at the competition and acquiring as much rival talent as possible. Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma, convenor of the Northeast Democratic Alliance coalition, is the foremost example of this approach. But he exemplifies a wider trend. Overall, over 50% of all BJP ministers in the northeastern states had earlier served in other parties. Two, strategic alliances. State-specific alliances have driven the BJP’s growth in each state. In Nagaland, for example, with the NDPP; in Tripura with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura; and in Meghalaya, earlier with United Democratic Party, People’s Democratic Front and the Hill State Democratic Party. And three, a robust development and funding narrative. PM Modi, who visited the North-East over 50 times in the last four years, has in his political outreach in the region, repeatedly accused previous Congress governments of “using the North-East like an ATM”. In contrast, he portrayed his approach of seeing the region as an Indian “growth engine.” Akin to, as he put it, “Ashtlakshmi” (eight forms of the Goddess Lakshmi). This political framing is based on significantly increased government spending in recent years. Approved central spending on regional schemes amounts to 12,882.2 crore for the balance period of the 15th Finance Commission (2022-23 to 2025-26). Most recently, PM-DevINE (Prime Minister’s Development Initiative for North East Region) earmarked 6,600 crore between 2022-23 and 2056-26. Similarly, for the railways, 51,019 crore has been spent since 2014. Government data shows that for railways, in comparison to the average annual budget allocation of 2,122 crore during 2009-14, during the past eight years, there was a 370% increase in average annual budget allocation.

Overall, the BJP emerged as the single-largest party in the North-East in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, winning 14 of 25 Lok Sabha seats in the region, with 33.7% vote-share. Now, as we head into the 2024 national elections, the BJP (with about 50 seats) has won six times more constituencies than the Congress (which was in single digits) in the three states that saw elections. For PM Modi’s BJP, it sets the tone for upcoming polls in other states. It also means that it will be looking to further increase its North-East tally in the big national contest next year.

Nalin Mehta is dean, School of Modern Media, UPES and the author of The New BJP: Modi and the Making of the World’s Largest Political PartyThe views expressed are personal

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