The saffron breeze in the Northeast

Subir Bhaumik

Subir Bhaumik  

Most regional parties prefer the BJP as their national partner, but managing contradictions won’t be easy

Of the three States whose Assembly election results were declared on March 3, Tripura’s was doubtlessly the most stunning. Tripura has been the safest Left bastion since the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front first swept to power in 1978. Only once since then, in 1988, did the Left Front lose to the Congress-TUJS (Tripura Upajati Juba Samity) alliance, but it returned to power in 1993. Since then it has been in power, with Manik Sarkar as Chief Minister since 1998. So for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to emerge out of nowhere and score a spectacular victory by getting a majority in the Assembly on its own is nothing short of a miracle. Beneath this surprise lies a cobweb of contradictions that the BJP’s election managers, especially Sunil Deodhar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s poll manager in Varanasi, seem to have managed so well.

The Tripura manoeuvre

By striking an alliance with the tribal Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) which demands a separate tribal State of Twipraland it wants carved out of the autonomous district council of the State, the BJP assured itself of a sweep in the 20 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes. The IPFT has close connect to the separatist National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), and the CPI(M) cadre is no match for the armed guerrillas who back the IPFT’s young militant cadres in the remote hill interiors. But by not endorsing the Twipraland demand and by not giving the IPFT the majority of the ST reserved seats (11 contested by the BJP, nine by the IPFT), the BJP sent a clear message it would not be a junior partner to its ally, as in Jammu and Kashmir. That got the BJP much of the tribal backing, and also of Bengalis in rural remote interiors who saw support to the BJP as their safest security option.

Then by absorbing almost the entire Congress-turned Trinamool Congress leadership in its fold, the BJP ensured that it ran away with the 30% Congress votebank. In Tripura, the fight has always tended to be between the Left and the anti-Left. With the Congress decimated and seen as the B-team of the Left, with Congress president Rahul Gandhi avoiding any attack against Mr. Sarkar, the anti-Left voter had no option but to go with the BJP as it was seen as the only viable option to dethrone the Left. The middle class Bengali vote swung the saffron way because of the Left’s poor track record in employment generation, forcing Tripura’s best brains to seek jobs in Pune, Bengaluru and Hyderabad. Mr. Sarkar’s refusal to meet the captains of IT industry during a 2015 Tripura Conclave organised to leverage Agartala’s emergence as India’s third Internet gateway did not go down well with GenNext, tribals and Bengalis alike. That explains the BJP sweep in Agartala and other urban areas. So with the tribal vote and the middle class urban Bengali vote swinging its way, all that the BJP needed was a small swing in the rural Bengali vote.

While much of that remained with the Left (which is marginally behind the BJP in overall vote share), in the deep interiors dominated by the IPFT’s militant cadre, the Bengali settlers seem to have voted against the Left, as it was seen to be no longer capable of defending them in the event of a resurgent tribal insurgency.

Fear of the unknown always haunts the rural Bengalis who have borne the brunt of tribal insurgency since the violence of 1980 — and a dominant BJP with a majority of its own was their best bet to tame the IPFT and nip the Twipraland demand in the bud. Politics is the art of managing the contradictions. It now seems those who swear by Kautilya seem to handle it better than those who preach Marx and Engels, at least in India.

A bid for all three

The BJP parliamentary board has expressed the hope that despite not getting a clear majority in Nagaland and also the Congress emerging as the single largest party in Meghalaya, the BJP will form the government in both these Christian-majority States. Again, the BJP seems to have managed the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) — NSCN (IM) — to back its bid for power with its new found ally and the Naga People’s Front (NPF) may join in as well, all apparently to pave the way for a final settlement of the Naga imbroglio. Failure to deliver a final settlement more than two years after signing the Framework Agreement would have normally jeopardised the poll prospects of the BJP, especially after it fell out with the ruling NPF, but party general secretary Ram Madhav’s political engineering in triggering a successful split and then taming the main NPF and the NSCN is something that would have done Kautilya proud.

But now the challenges. In Tripura, the BJP has to deliver on its development promise — the new Chief Minister may do well to go for roadshows to attract big ticket investments to leverage the IT gateway and may consider, for instance, decommissioning the 10MW Gumti hydel project to reclaim thousands of acres of fertile tribal land that the project submerged nearly four decades ago. While IT investments would appeal to the young, both tribals and Bengalis, the dam decommissioning may open the path for ethnic reconciliation which the Marxists overlooked at their own peril by trying to play the wild card of Bengali chauvinism.

In Nagaland, the BJP has to deliver a final settlement in a way that pleases most, if not all, rebel and political factions. This is no easy task in a very divided tribal society.

In Meghalaya, where the BJP appears to have managed to dethrone Chief Minister Mukul Sangma (who led the Congress to emerge as the single largest party), it would have to hold together a coalition of disparate regional players; ensuring the survival of such a coalition will not be easy in Meghalaya’s ‘aya ram gaya ram’ politics.

Message for West Bengal

Most regional parties in Northeast now prefer the BJP as their national partner, and not the Congress which has a tribal base, but managing the contradictions will be a a full-time task. Meanwhile, the Tripura results will definitely worry one Chief Minister in particular — Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. It is easy to see why she spoke of Left arrogance and Congress missteps in not aligning with her party in Tripura. She seems to know that she will be the next to face the saffron fire.

Subir Bhaumik, a former BBC bureau chief for East and Northeast India, is editorial consultant with Myanmar’s Mizzima Media

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