Putting the BJP’s electoral success in the northeast in context

The BJP victories in India’s northeast are noteworthy, but they do not guarantee long-term success for the party.

Tripura election victory BJP celebration - Reuters
A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter wears a mask of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after BJP won complete majority in Tripura Assembly elections March 4, 2018 [Jayanta Dey/Reuters]

Since March 3, the main topic of conversation across India has been the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) unexpected electoral success in three small northeastern states – Tripura, Nagaland, and Meghalaya. In a country of 1.3 billion people and more than 860 million voters, such widespread interest in seemingly minor assembly elections can be considered a tad exaggerated. But the interest is somewhat justified because results of these elections appear to have nationwide, and global, consequences. 

First of all, as result of these elections, the BJP has widened its electoral base and tightened its stranglehold over parliamentary politics in India. The party is now in power – on its own or with coalition partners – in 22 of the 29 Indian states. The wide-spread electoral success of a party which does not camouflage its majoritarian character unsurprisingly attracts attention as well as scrutiny. But after showing that it has an appeal even in the northeast, the BJP is now better placed than ever to argue on the global stage that it is an inclusive political force. 

Defeating ‘communists’ 

The BJP’s victory in the state of Tripura particularly attracted global attention. In this small state bordering Bangladesh, the ruling party managed to defeat the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which had been in power there since 1992. This development made headline news around the world because a “communist” party was swept aside, most humiliatingly, by a Hindu sectarian party.

On the surface, the ideological divergence between the winner and the loser could not have been greater – from the left, the state swung incontrovertibly to the right. But the swing in this traditionally left-wing state was actually not that drastic. The body politic of Indian communist parties, which embraced parliamentary democracy after India’s independence, is completely in contrast with the Stalinist image their names evoke. Although in theory CPI(M) believes in a revolutionary framework, in practise, the party makes key decisions and selects candidates keeping India’s complex caste and social equations in mind. 

Moreover, during the years CPI(M) governed West Bengal – it lost power in the state in 2011 after being in office since 1977 – it, too, initiated neoliberal economic policies to spur growth and retain power. Even in Kerala, India’s most literate state, where CPI(M) is currently in office, economic policies of the present government are not significantly different than those pursued by the previous coalition headed by the Congress party.

At best, Indian communists function as social democrats underscoring perpetually left-of-centre character of Indian economic policies. Despite criticism from small groups of committed neoliberals who accuse successive federal governments of pursuing social protectionism, no party in India eschews egalitarianism or drastically slashes social sector spending. Modi, too, despite promising to bring “minimum government, maximum governance” in India during his election campaign, has been pursuing economic policies that have a populist flavour since he assumed office 45 months ago.

The annual budget Modi’s government presented in February – the last before next year’s parliamentary poll – was termed an election-year quasi-populist promissory document with a slew of programmes aimed at pleasing the rural poor and boosting the health sector. Modi’s decision to not rollback back significant anti-poverty measures of the previous government even led to one of his prominent critics on the Right, Arun Shourie, defining the current government as ” Congress plus a cow“; suggesting Modi’s is a regime that is only right-wing when it comes to its pro-Hindu and Islamophobic political programmes.

A patron-client relationship

In the latest round of state elections, the BJP had success not only in Tripura, but also in Nagaland and Meghalaya. These states are in India’s northeast, a region that has a troubled history of integration. Almost all of the eight states situated in this region – with Sikkim being the last addition following a 1975 referendum – witnessed long periods of militant separatist agitation. A peace process is still under way in Nagaland. Also, most of these states are primarily tribal or Christian majority states. On the face of it, demographic profiles of these states should have been a “deterrent” against the spread of the Hindu-nationalist BJP’s influence.

Yet, the BJP is now ruling Tripura and is part of coalitions in both Meghalaya and Nagaland. Previously, the party also formed a government in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. Currently, Mizoram is the only state in the region which does not have a BJP government, on its own, or in coalitions and there are signs that even this last Congress-governed state will yield to the BJP when polls are called this winter.

In India’s northeast, Assam, Manipur and Tripura are the only states with a significant Hindu population and thereby, the only ones where the BJP’s electoral success can, at least partially, be tied to its ideological stance.

So how is a Hindu-nationalist party managing to gain ground across the northeast?

Because of the history of separatism in the region, political parties in each of these states, including the Congress and the BJP, function primarily as arms of state power, and not as ideologically integrated political units. 

The BJP units in these states are not committed to the party’s long-term aspiration of converting India into a Hindu nation. People living in these states support the BJP’s presence, not because they have sympathy for the party’s ideological stance, but because it allows proximity to state power and, more importantly, to central funds. After the BJP took control of the federal government from the Congress in 2014, political leaders in these states gradually switched loyalties to the BJP, the way “clients” align with new “patrons”. 

The BJP’s victory in Tripura has made the party’s cadre euphoric. Following their victory, BJP supporters started demolishing statues of Lenin, as if they were freeing their homeland from an oppressive tyrant like Saddam Hussein. His supporters’ violent expression of excitement worried Modi and he asked them to stop demolishing these statues. But the prime minister also bolstered enthusiasm in his victory speech to party workers claiming the BJP’s success in Tripura would convert into triumphs in other states due to vote this year, and eventually in the 2019 parliamentary election. 

But while success in Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland may be adequate to motivate BJP workers and harness greater zeal and commitment, it will not have a significant impact in other states. The CPI(M) after all, failed to extend influence beyond West Bengal and Tripura despite controlling these states for several years. 

Despite the BJP’s recent gains in the southeast, the continuation of the party’s success in upcoming state elections is not guaranteed and Modi’s route to re-election in 2019 is not devoid of obstacles. 

Last year, after the astonishing verdict from India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP won three-quarters of assembly seats, Modi’s re-election was considered certain. Yet, within months the support evaporated and in provincial polls in Gujarat in December, the BJP won the lowest number of seats in almost a quarter of a century.

Reasons for the ground suddenly becoming shaky for Modi were three-fold: dissatisfaction over non-delivery of a slew of promises made by him in 2014, financial crisis which gripped every Indian when Modi dramatically scrapped high-value currency notes in November 2016, and hasty introduction of Goods and Service Tax in July 2017, which quickened the pace of shifting Indian economy from the informal to formal sector. There is the additional concern over rising joblessness and agrarian distress – farmers committing suicide because of rising debts has become an epidemic in rural India. 

Despite still being a frontrunner, Modi knows that his path to re-election will not be paved with even cobblestones. Much will depend on what he is able to deliver in the remainder of his tenure. Additionally, he will have to project an overarching political idea which catches the imagination of the people.

In 2014, Modi dwelt on the poor performance of the Congress-led government and institutionalised corruption to win and he promised a bright future in which development would gallop. Today, despite the Modi government’s claims that it has reached its economic goals, and visible progress in certain sectors, there is a possibility that in the public’s perception there is a schism between the prime minister’s campaign promises and performance. 

At the moment, the BJP is the only party with a good probability of securing a majority on its own in the upcoming general election. Having realised between 1996-2014 that coalition governments are no impediment to growth and development, Indians may well experiment with another political partnership in 2019. Currently, BJP faces different adversaries, at times more than one, in various states and the absence of a national challenger to Modi may or not be significant in the long run. The BJP’s new-found success in the northeast is noteworthy, but it is not a definitive sign that the party’s long-term, nationwide dominance is guaranteed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.