In Nagaland, the BJP is heading towards a coalition government with the newly-formed Nationalist Democratic People’s Party (NDPP).
The Bharatiya Janata Party is displaying the proverbial fire in the belly, keen to fight every battle and win them too. The appetite for victory seems to have paid off, with the party posting a handsome victory in Tripura, dethroning the 20-year-old CPI(M) government headed by Manik Sarkar. In Nagaland, the BJP is heading towards a coalition government with the newly-formed Nationalist Democratic People’s Party (NDPP). In Meghalaya, the BJP has become a power to reckon with due to its impressive showing along with the local allies, though the Congress remains the single largest party. It is natural that the BJP leaders crow about their performance in the gains made in the three states, and those away from the ground in these places are likely to read the victories of the BJP as the triumph of Hindutva and saffronisation. But it would be a blunder to describe the BJP’s success in these states as the spread of the saffron footprint in India’s Northeast. The truth is that it is not Hindutva — read Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the rest of the ideological family — but the BJP, the political outfit that happens to be in power at the Centre, which has made these inroads in the region.
The BJP has two faces. Hindutva is one and the other is that of a party in power at the Centre, which is nationalist but not Hindu nationalist. The party has refrained from using the Hindutva card openly in Tripura, but it may use it to entrench itself in the state. The RSS had been working there for years, and it is to be remembered that the Congress had flirted with the RSS while opposing the Communists. The BJP has no option to present a different face in Nagaland and Meghalaya, where the majority is Christian. The only way to win over the people in these two states is to play the pluralist India card, where these two Christian-majority states can remain safe and distinct. The inveterate critics and ideological opponents of the BJP will have to read the fine print, as it were, in the election results in Nagaland and Meghalaya.
There is also not much of a contradiction in the BJP’s position. It can propound the majoritarian and intolerant Hindutva in the Hindi heartland, and even in places like Assam and Tripura in the Northeast, but it will have to acknowledge the non-Hindu and strictly tribal composition of the population in the other two states. The general unstated doctrine of the party would be that as long as large parts of India remain Hindu politically and culturally, the presence of Christian-majority states in the Northeast do not pose any threat to the idea of Hindu India, which goes by the unconvincing label of cultural nationalism. It would be foolish to expect the BJP to become a broadbased national party which accepts religious and cultural diversity like the Congress does, though it should be noted that the Congress’ pluralism is partly cynical and opportunist and partly ideological. So the cries of despair which are likely to rise from the metropolitan centres of the country saying that India is now totally saffron should be swiftly discounted.
There is also the need to deconstruct the myth of the BJP as a juggernaut which has been riding triumphant across the country. All the victories in the state Assembly elections after 2014, with the party being run as a duopoly of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah, is really a case of anti-incumbency. In Maharashtra, it was a Congress that was in power for three terms that was defeated. In Assam, as well as in Haryana, the Congress was in power for a decade. People look for alternatives in a democracy. The BJP was able to offer a stable alternative, and people took it. It should not come as a surprise then that the 20-year-old CPI(M) government in Tripura had to go because the BJP offered an alternative. It can well be asked why the Congress could not grab the same opportunity. The Congress played the soft Hindutva card over the years in Tripura, and it could not succeed. The victory of the BJP in Tripura is partly an ideological victory for Hindutva.
The defeat of the CPI(M) in Tripura should not be interpreted as the death of the Left in the state. But the climb back is not going to be very easy. It was bad for the party, and it is so for any political organisation, that it was in power for such a long time. Power isolates political parties. It seems that honesty and absence of corruption will not satisfy the people. People want development, and that seemed to have been absent. There could be many reasons for this, and it is not the failing of the CPI(M) alone. The fact that parties in power at the Centre have always discriminated against state governments under other parties has been a major factor as well. It can safely be said that the defeat of Manik Sarkar’s government is not a sign of failure as much as the people of Tripura saying with due respect that they want change.
Can the Left stage a political comeback if it has lost two of its traditional bases — West Bengal and Tripura? As a matter of fact, this should force the Communists to expand their base rather than be complacent with their strongholds in these two states.
The BJP, on the other hand, is reaching its limits of expansion. It cannot hope to maintain its winning streak for too long and it cannot hope to keep what it has won without being challenged. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh under the BJP and West Bengal under the Left Front till 2010 are aberrations. Change is the natural dynamic of democracy.