By Amulya Ganguli
It will be a mistake to regard the BJP’s success in Tripura as a harbinger of its future prospects elsewhere in the country because it is based on the quicksand of opportunistic politics.
What the BJP has been able to do in Tripura is virtually to take over the Congress lock, stock and barrel, as the reversal of the vote share of the two parties show. Where the BJP’s percentage of votes has risen from one per cent in the last three assembly elections to replicate the CP((M)’s share of about 50 per cent, the Congress’s has dropped to a single digit figure from the customary 30-plus per cent which it used to receive.
A dramatic transfer of votes of this nature is obviously not normal. What it means is that the Congress’s base has gone over almost entirely to the BJP. The reasons for this wholesale swap are obvious. First, the Congress’s traditional supporters lost their faith in the party’s ability to provide effective governance as in 1988 when the party was last in power, for it seemed devoid of ideas as well as energy. As a result, they saw in the far more energetic BJP the ideal party to take on the CPI(M).
Secondly, the Marxists, too, appeared to be without a sense of direction, living instead on the laurels of past achievements, including ensuring an atmosphere free of ethnic strife. But the CPI(M) had no answer to the BJP’s promise of development which continues to motivate the voters even if the party’s achievements on this score have not been much to write home about in other parts of the country. As a result, the BJP has had to suffer setbacks in the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh by-elections and scraped through to a narrow win in Gujarat.
The scene in the north-east, however, is different. Its distance from the mainland has meant that it continues to be a byword for neglect and inattention, which has fuelled militancy, including the unresolved problem of Naga insurgency. In this depressing context, Narendra Modi’s mantra of sabka saath, sabka vikas or development for all has a special resonance for the people of the north-east, who apparently believe that state governments in sync with the centre will succeed in solving the problems of unemployment and infrastructure far more effectively than what either the CPI(M) or the Congress – both of which are forever at odds with the Modi dispensation – can do.
The BJP’s success can also be explained by the possibility that both the CPI(M) and the Congress did not take the challenge from their challenger too seriously. The two parties apparently banked on the BJP’s pro-Hindi heartland image and fetishes about beef undermining its appeal. What they did not seem to realize is that the BJP has learnt the art of being different parties in different regions. If its ministers at the centre can threaten to deport beef-eaters to Pakistan, its leaders in the north-east will promise to take Christians by air free of charge to Jerusalem and utter not a word about banning beef.
In this respect, the BJP seems to follow what Asaduddin Owaisi of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen said about the cow being “mummy” for the BJP in north and west India, but yummy in the north-east. It is this ability of the BJP to speak in different voices and indulge in wholesale horse-trading to assimilate entire parties which is behind its successful politics.
But even if the BJP gloats over its runaway victory in Tripura, it will know that taking over the Congress can pose more problems than it will solve. For one, a turncoat can rarely be trusted. For another, the political culture of the two parties is not compatible, especially if the role of the RSS is taken into consideration which has been working assiduously behind the scene to build a durable base for the BJP. The hardworking swayamsevaks engaged in this task are unlikely to take kindly to the entry of the unreliable Congress-types in the BJP.
For a third, the tribal question will haunt a BJP-led government considering that the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) is unlikely to quietly accept a rejection of the demand for a division of the state to provide the tribals with a separate homeland. Manik Sarkar’s government was able to defuse the situation, which had once led to widespread violence between the Bengalis and the tribals, but not solve the problem. As a partner in the new government, the IPFT is bound to raise the issue. The BJP will have to grasp the nettle, but the problem will test its mettle to the full.
What the outcome portends, therefore, is a period of uncertainty, which has the potential of being politically damaging to the BJP in the run-up to next year’s all-important general election. The unsettled conditions are also likely to be aggravated by the fact that there is little chance of either the CPI(M) or the Congress recovering their poise in the near future.