Pushing panic buttons: review of 'The Last Battle of Saraighat: The Story of the BJP’s Rise in the North-east'

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

The Last Battle of Saraighat: The Story of the BJP’s Rise in the North-east Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha Penguin/ Viking ₹599  

Two insiders on the campaign that helped BJP win Assam

As the Northeastern States of Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram brace for Assembly elections in the new year, May 19, 2016, has come to be regarded as an inflection point for the BJP’s fortunes in the region. It was on that day that the party registered a comprehensive sweep in Assam in the Assembly elections, prising open a door that led to a firmer foothold in the Northeast. Manipur is now in the BJP bag, as are Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, and the party now believes it has a clear shot at breaching the Left citadel in Tripura.

Rajat Sethi and Shubrastha are described as political campaigners for the BJP in the Northeast, and even if one isn’t entirely clear about what their role in the run-up to the Assam elections was, their proximity to party national general secretary and its point man for the Northeast, Ram Madhav, makes their reading of the party’s march to Dispur an authoritative account of what the BJP and RSS think fashioned its first win ever in the State.

The authors’ conclusions are on point: the BJP kept the campaign local, deflecting its opponent’s effort to turn it national; it displayed great organisational nimbleness to work the numbers in its favour; and it mounted the campaign on a rhetoric of outsiders versus sons of the soil that not only resonated with the electorate but also converted a neck-and-neck contest into a ‘wave election’.

The Last Battle of Saraighat throws up several surprises. There are candid admissions of behind-the-scenes electoral machinations. The stratagems to offset Congress vote banks with alternative alliances or to win them over altogether make for fascinating reading, especially the effort to dismantle the ruling party’s grip on the numerically crucial tea tribes. The authors even resist the temptation of BJP hagiography at several points, with generous praise for certain State Congress leaders past and present.

Where the analysis comes up short is in its conflation of migrant Muslims with illegal Bangladeshis, and in treating the electoral verdict as a ringing endorsement of the BJP/ Sangh’s nationalist project. The former is an all-too-familiar trope since the days of the Assam Agitation in the late 1970s. The fact of the matter is that all Bengali-speaking Muslims are not illegal Bangladeshis. As for the integrationist Akhand Bharat project, Assam isn’t the final frontier of subnationalism/secessionism — that sentiment lost salience by the turn of the millennium.

The ‘last battle of Saraighat’ as an election battle cry made Assam’s immigrant Muslims the modern-day equivalent of the Mughals whom the Ahoms defeated in 1671 AD. It was a devious analogy. But then, good facts don’t make for good politics as the Asom Gana Parishad and the BJP proved with their victories 31 years apart.

The Last Battle of Saraighat: The Story of the BJP’s Rise in the North-east; Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha, Penguin/ Viking, ₹599.

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Printable version | May 24, 2020 6:52:30 PM |

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