BJP mascot Narendra Modi has been describing the Northeast as the nation’s “astha lakshmi”, or the eight manifestations of the goddess of wealth. On May 23, as the results of the general election poured in, it became clear that the eight states of the Northeast gave rich dividends to the party in a region that was once the bastion of the Congress. The tally — 18 of the region’s 25 Lok Sabha seats — were bagged by the BJP and its allies in the NDA, with the BJP on its own winning 14 seats, nine of them in Assam.
That was not all — the BJP received a massive mandate from the people of Arunachal Pradesh, where the elections to the 60-member state Assembly were held simultaneously. The party won 41 seats and has since stormed to power under the leadership of chief minister Pema Khandu. In fact, the Arunachal victory is huge for the BJP because although the erstwhile government of Mr Khandu too was a BJP government, it did not have the people’s mandate. This is because Khandu & Co had then transformed themselves from the Congress to the regional People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA) before turning BJP!
Therefore, after Assam and Tripura, Arunachal is the third northeastern state to have bagged a clear electoral verdict in its favour. The BJP, of course, is part of the governments in Manipur, Nagaland and Meghalaya.
There has been a bonus as well. That came from Sikkim, where the 24-year-long government of chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling came to an end with the defeat of the Sikkim Democratic Front at the hands of the revamped Sikkim Krantikari Morcha, or the SKM, in the Assembly polls held simultaneously. Well, Mr Chamling’s SDF too was technically with the NDA by way of it being a constituent of the BJP-floated North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA). But the SDF was never considered a reliable ally and Mr Chamling never once attended a NEDA meet. Soon after the SKM unseated the SDF and assumed office, chief minister P.S. Golay and his party leaders made a clear statement that they would back the NDA unconditionally. Its lone Lok Sabha MP, Indra Hang Subba, attended the NDA parliamentary party meeting in New Delhi and expressed his party’s support for the NDA under the leadership of Mr Narendra Modi.
Now, the obvious question is, how did the BJP manage this spectacular result in the Northeast that has such a large non-Hindu population? States like Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya are Christian-dominated with above 90 per cent people practising the faith, while in Assam, 35 per cent of the population are Muslims. If the BJP today is on the verge of achieving its public pronouncement of creating a “Congress-mukt Northeast” (Congress-free Northeast), it is because the party has done several things right in its battle for this strategic frontier that shares borders with China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal.
First, the BJP identified and embraced like-minded regional allies and then went out of its way to sacrifice to a great extent and leave Lok Sabha seats for them to put their candidates up. Take the case of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in Assam. The regional party had quit the BJP-led alliance in the state and its three ministers had pulled out of the Sarbananda Sonowal Cabinet over opposition to the Modi government’s bid to pass the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Then, at the last moment, on the eve of the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP let the AGP return to its fold and all the three ministers got back to the Sonowal ministry. The BJP left three Lok Sabha seats for its ally, the AGP, to contest. The AGP lost all three, and just when a lot of people thought the BJP could sideline or even dump it for fear of having to live with a liability, the party rewarded the AGP by nominating one of its leaders to the Rajya Sabha from Assam. The logic as enunciated by an Assam BJP strategist — the AGP could come in handy for the BJP when the Assam Assembly polls are held in 2021.
Second, the BJP’s pitch insofar as the Northeast is concerned has been development, and nothing else, with Prime Minister Modi harping on highways, infoways, airways and waterways for the region. This agenda clicked more so because the regional parties which are allies of the BJP survive on pushing the interests of the region or the states they are active in. Of late, one regional party has emerged as a pan-Northeast party — that is the National People’s Party (NPP), founded by one of the region’s tallest political figures, Purno A. Sangma, a former Lok Sabha Speaker. And significantly, the NPP is a staunch ally of the BJP as a constituent of the NDA and has been with the alliance despite its strong opposition to the Citizenship Bill. NPP chief Conrad Sangma, who is the Meghalaya chief minister, has become a rallying point for the regional parties and is therefore a key constituent of the NEDA.
Campaign methods and style also matter. While Mr Modi made 35 visits to the Northeast during his five years as Prime Minister, his key political opponent Rahul Gandhi made very few visits, except during the elections. Now, many would argue that Mr Modi is Prime Minister while Rahul Gandhi is only the chief of an Opposition party. That’s true, but what did the Congress do to revamp its moribund units in the states? Look at how the BJP’s main strategist in the Northeast, senior Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, devised his now trademark unconventional padayatras infused with dance steps as a means to connect with the masses. Mr Sarma held close to 200 padayatras and rallies across Assam and with his dance steps to match the BJP campaign song playing in the background, there was no stopping this “Chanakya of the Northeast” and the thousands who walked and danced with him. This way, the BJP did not even need to talk about what its government had done or not done nationally in five years!
In the end, while the BJP was seen in the region as a strong and determined party with a lot of allies, the Congress came around as a solo player without friends. And if perfume baron Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, chief of the pro-minority AIUDF, is to be believed, the Congress went back on a deal that it would not field candidates against the AIUDF in three of the state’s 14 Lok Sabha seats because Ajmal & Co. were not fighting against the Congress in 11 seats. In the end, the Congress ended up fighting Mr Ajmal and two other AIUDF candidates. Mr Ajmal was lucky to win, but not the other two AIUDF candidates as the votes split. The Congress in the Northeast has a lot to learn from the BJP pathshala insofar as electoral arithmetic is concerned!