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North East election results 2018: BJP’s flirtation with regional elements marks localisation of elections

The stunning political story of the North East is out for all to witness. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), hitherto regarded as a mere novice and a hesitant entrant to the complicated politics of the region, has overturned its predicted destiny, making not inroads but overarching conquest. It is a political fact much reiterated, but perhaps it cannot be reiterated enough – that from a vote-share described, at best, as marginal and ultimately irrelevant, the BJP has grasped as much as 43 percent of the electoral pie in Tripura. The state was a celebrated bastion of the Left whose fate, despite chief minister Manik Sarkar’s decades of unbroken rule, hangs in precarious balance.

In Tripura, the BJP and its unlikely allies, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), have conquered as many as forty-three seats in the fifty-nine seat assembly, leaving the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to skive the crumbs of this veritable feast. In Nagaland, where the contest was triangular, even quadrilateral, the BJP appears certain of forming the government in alliance with either Neiphiu Rio’s Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) or the incumbent Naga People’s Front (NPF). In allying with the victor, to phrase it differently, the BJP will proclaim its own victory. Meghalaya, where the Indian National Congress (INC) can still claim dignity in wider regional defeat, cuts a picture of ambiguous desolation, insoluble until Conrad Sangma’s National People’s Party (NPP), the United Democratic Party (UDP), and the rather incongruently dense mass of electoral units such as the Hill State Peoples’ Democratic Party choose which way to turn.

What has emerged most clearly in these configurations is the vigour of the BJP’s determined juggernaut, treating defeat as fatal political sin and victory, even if comes at the precious cost of snatching it from defeat, with a missionary zeal unseen and unprecedented in contemporary politics. But how, as a commentator impassionedly asked on a shouting match on national television, does the BJP do it?

Narendra Modi speaking at the BJP office on Saturday. PTI

Narendra Modi speaking at the BJP office on Saturday. PTI

In his long road to coronation as the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi realised early that religion will have to be couched with a veneer that appeals to a larger mass of his electorate and is truly national. He accomplished this, as is well-known, by transfiguring into the vikas-purush who would, if elected, liberate India from the endless tyranny of the Congress party. Since his election, it is a veneer that Modi has clung to, even as he has had to loosen his control over elements of the so-called fringe and in many cases, even encourage them.

The rhetoric of this veneer has enabled his party to derive electoral triumph from wherever they could find, or create, a sentiment of anti-incumbency, toppling Congress-ruled regimes state after state, election after election in what can only be described as an electoral march unto death and democracy. This has been done through a brutal election machine pioneered by Amit Shah. This machine is an engineered beast for which no issue is inalterable, no memory inerasable, and no election insignificant. In the North East, the beast has had to be reined carefully. Here the party has been aided by Himanta Biswa Sarma, whose loss the Congress should acknowledge to have been suicidal. With the exception of Manik Sarkar’s government in Tripura, the BJP has found it simple, even effortless to devastate the political map of the region, driving its watchful narrative as a knife through comatose governments and their avowed claims of re-election.

Yet, this is a fable that assumes the North East to be too easily explainable, for it is a narrative too national to be sensitive to regional dynamics and contingencies. The rise of the BJP in north eastern India is a very national story, but its formidable way has run through regional actors and elements, as well as local sentiments of belonging, identity, and sub-nationalism. The BJP has made the national synonymous with itself, but its political story in the North East — narrated exclusively as one of inroads developed with alacrity, rapidity, and unceasing strength — marks the provincialisation of elections in India, a feature we had believed to have lost after 2014. In this scenario, no leader, not even Modi, is formidable enough to escape extensive negotiations with local political entities. In fact, one may suggest that the BJP’s rise in the North East is not the displacement of a national actor — the Congress — by another national hegemon. Rather, it suggests an arithmetic of discontentment with the national whose sentimental wellspring the BJP tapped into and deftly appropriated, forging critical alliances with regional elements representing this impasse in the process. Such a proposition will be music only to the ears of purveyors of the national in the national media. In the grammar of politics in north eastern India, this is the statement of political life.

In verbalising the lament of the North East — its history of neglect, suppression, and suchlike at the hands of national governments and paradigms — Modi exhibited an astute understanding of the region’s tumultuous politics. Indeed, as the North East begins to assert itself as a region that ‘can’ be a power if recognised as one, the BJP realised, well in time, that the victor in the North East will have to be local in orientation even if national in visage. While the Congress tried to galvanise support against the nationalisation of Hindutva and its corrosive championing by the national government, the BJP’s electoral machine reached every nook and cranny, populating banners with posters of national icons but singing to local and regional grievance, such as the hostility to illegal mining in Meghalaya despite its economic allure. A key political flank in the BJP’s rallies in the region was the issue of Bangladeshi migrants and their multifarious dangers. In fact, in his self-congratulatory speech today, Himanta Biswa Sarma asked Manik Sarkar to go to West Bengal, Kerala, or Bangladesh.

In Tripura, the BJP extended a hand of alliance to the IPFT, a front whose political sinew is the demand for a separate state for the Tripuri tribe, representing tribal grievance against perceived and actual Bengali supremacy in the state. The IPFT saw great virtue in joining hands with the ruling party in the central government.

In Nagaland, the BJP, unlike the Congress which seems to have accepted the eventuality of its withering disappearance, gauged the political vacuum that the localised rift between the NPF and the NDPP had created and endeavoured to occupy it. Whichever faction claims governance in Nagaland will now have to bear the weight of the BJP and in turn, have a steady national hand hold its regional aspiration. Meghalaya may appear insoluble, but here, too, the shadow of the BJP is inescapable; it is quite possible that Biswa Sarma will carve a carefully negotiated local alliance in service of the national party, giving the BJP its third and most triumphant victory of the day.

Allying with regional figures and formations against the overarching national may have given the BJP the prized opportunity to declare their triumphs as its own, but it will do well to remember that if the national will be affronted, as appears likely, the BJP will also have to bear this assault of sub-nationalism. The valuable peace that the North East has painstakingly hankered for after decades of insurgency is a lost memory, but its return, if it were to be executed, will damage the BJP beyond this ephemeral joy of transient electoral success. The resurrection of a lost memory is a flirtation with sub-nationalism.


Updated Date: Mar 03, 2018 22:00 PM

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