The BJP has won an ideological war in Tripura against the ruling CPI(M), while Nagaland it has swept in like a tide; and in Meghalaya it has transformed itself from a party of the mainland into a party with grassroots. The makeover is nowhere more significant, of course, than in Tripura. Incumbency — 20 years of uninterrupted rule by Manik Sarkar — summarised the defeat of the olde worlde charm of the people’s struggle by a combination of aspirations and possibilities that the BJP marketed.
Tripura was a lonely bastion, in a terrain that has significantly changed colour in the past 10 years, shifting away from the Congress to the BJP-Sangh Parivar. The Northeast is not entirely Congress-mukt (liberated from the Congress’ stranglehold) because Meghalaya has not succumbed, as yet, to the saffron appeal. But Nagaland is an extraordinary exemplar; its politics is pragmatic and illustrates just how flexibile, if somewhat puzzling, the BJP’s strategy for winning can get. It hedged its bets by getting into an alliance with one and having a partnership with the other, that is, it ran with the challenger and the incumbent in Nagaland as a partner of the outgoing Nagaland People’s Front and as ally of the incoming National Democratic Peoples’ Party.
The BJP has been working on its Northeast strategy for several years. To establish itself as a truly national party, it had to win where the Congress had been entrenched for so long or had been the party that had called the shots as it grappled with militancy, insurgency and terrorism. It needed to use its biggest advantage, that of starting things off with regional actors on a clean slate. The signing of the framework agreement with the warring factions in Nagaland in 2015 was one signal and this made it imperative that the BJP wins in the state in 2018.
After Assam and Manipur, the saffron capture of the Northeast was a war that the BJP has fought with all that it had. The defence by the incumbent parties — CPI(M), Congress and regional parties — was poor, as either they did not get the BJP’s game or they did not have the resources to wage the war. The BJP outmanoeuvred the rest and emerged as first challenger, and now victor.
The plan, it would appear, is to mainstream the Northeast and bring it into Bharat Mata’s embrace. In that, the BJP has succeeded. It has used every weapon in its arsenal to sell itself as an attractive proposition, banking on the fact that most of the leadership in the Northeast states were old, worn and needed to retire. It also leveraged its winner cachet, that had an appeal for the new generation of voters. It spent effort and resources on countering the impact of the “Hindu nationalism — Beef Ban” aspect of its politics, by specifying that the Northeast was different. It was a clever strategy designed to appeal to the pride of people with distinctions.
In Tripura too, the BJP correctly identified the CPI(M) as an isolated sitting duck. The overwhelming majority of the state’s population has nothing in common with the rest of the Northeast and its tribal politics is very different as well. The CPI(M), after 20 years of uninterrupted power, had converted itself into what it thought was an invincible fortress, by successfully marginalising the Congress as the Opposition and becoming the only relevant party in the state. It had dealt “firmly” with tribal militancy and therefore thought it was unassailable.
Tripura was an open invitation to the BJP to offer an alternative as the CPI(M) had become a complacent and arrogant occupant. Even though it was fully conscious that it should not underestimate the BJP, it did not know what it should do. To have imagined that the impeccable Manik Sarkar was all that was needed to steer the party to yet another win after four terms in office, despite the hard and unambiguous message from voters in West Bengal, where the CPI(M) had been similarly entrenched that abuses of power could exceed the limits of people’s patience, was sheer stupidity.
The choice to make a change was a powerful driver; it sent the BJP’s voteshare zooming to over 40 per cent from an insignificant 1.5 per cent in 2013. It was not the alleged tampering with voting machines or flooding the state with cash that turned the BJP into a winner; it figured out what the new generation of voters, a tragically large number of whom commit suicide in Tripura, the deeply disgruntled employees of the state government and the hapless daily wage-earners wanted to hear. Combined with its strategy to team up with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, the challenge to the CPI(M) was too great for Mr Sarkar to hold off.
The verdict is not only against Mr Sarkar and the local leadership of the CPI(M) in Tripura. It is also a verdict against the idea of the CPI(M). Even though a member of the party’s politburo, the select few within the CPI(M) who steer the course of the party’s political engagement, Mr Sarkar was not only out of his depth, but it was out of bounds for him as a “disciplined” soldier of a party to usurp the authority of the collective leadership, which is deeply divided and has lost focus and direction on what it should do and how it should do it. Perhaps the burden of the CPI(M)’s expectations, of holding the BJP-Sangh Parivar ideological assault on the secular, democratic ideals of India at bay, was more than the voters of Tripura wanted to bear.
Tripura, as the BJP’s Sunil Deodhar, the man who camped in the state for two years and built up the organisation from scratch, was an ideological war. The CPI(M) failed to gauge that the election in Tripura was a confrontation between the Sangh Parivar’s plans for Hindu Rashtra, that is India, and the CPI(M)’s idea of a secular, plural, democratic polity. It miscalculated its response. Its central leadership made guest appearances on the Tripura screen which hardly cut ice, against the blitz of propaganda by a team of leaders headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and six of his seniormost ministers, with Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath bringing up the rear.
The next battleground in the ideological war between the BJP and the CPI(M) is Kerala. Unlike West Bengal or Tripura, where the CPI(M) had no serious challengers till the BJP in 2018 and Mamata Banerjee in 2011, the Congress and the CPI(M) have alternatively held power in Kerala. The idea that the BJP now seems to be working with is that it is the party in waiting in Kerala, rather than the Congress.
In order for the public sphere to operate within the rules of a game that the BJP can fully control, the decimation of the CPI(M) seems to be a political necessity. What this means in very ordinary terms is that while the BJP can send the Congress scurrying to temples as proof of faith, it cannot do so to the CPI(M). Until it can uproot the CPI(M), the BJP will not be comfortable, perhaps as an anti-BJP political alternative would welcome the CPI(M), as it would give credibility to its plans or simply because it is an ideological enemy.