North-East saffronised but losses in UP, Bihar rattle BJP

samajwadi party
Together they win: The SP-BSP alliance paid off in Bihar and UP polls

The display of the saffron flag in Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya is a historic advance for the BJP. It signifies the Congress party’s decimation and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s constant assent. With the BJP’s standout performance in all three northeastern states, the party is now in control of 22 out of 29 states in the country directly or through allies. The political message is loud and clear more than just about the symbolism of Congress being reduced literally to a zero in both Tripura (from 10 seats in 2013) and Nagaland (from 8 seats in 2013). The BJP now claims to be more than a Hindi belt party and the only pan-India party.

However, the euphoria over the astounding victory in North-East has proved short lived for the Bhartiya Janta Party as it has got a shocker in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In the prestigious parliamentary seat of Gorakhpur, vacated by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath who held the seat for record five times and in Phulpur, vacated by his deputy Keshav Maurya, the Samajwadi Party with the support of Bahujan Samaj Party of Mayawati has won comfortably. Maurya himself admitted that “The BSP has successfully been able to transfer its votes for the SP”.

In Bihar, the Rashtriya Janta Dal registered wins from Araria parliamentary seat and Jahanabad assembly seat. West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamta Banerje was quick to tweet “Congratulations to Lalu Prasad Ji for the great victory”, giving enough hints of possible future tie-ups.

With presence in most of the states, the BJP will be eyeing Karnataka, Odisha, Bengal and Kerala and will try to beat anti-incumbency in states like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Traditionally, North-Eastern states have remained inclined towards the party at the Centre because of the heavy dependence of the region on grants and funds. But what makes the BJP’s ascendency in the North-East different this time is the saffron party’s emergence as the party of choice. This party is not only the party of choice in the Hindi belt alone, but of people in Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and now Tripura.

This performance shatters a seven decade-old trend of choices devolving between the Congress and local parties. In fact, ever since Mamata Banerjee successfully worsted the CPM in West Bengal, the Left has been with its back to the wall. It now faces a serious existential crisis. In the North-East the BJP’s performance has been, to say the least, spectacular as it has wrested the state of Tripura away from the Left by winning 43 out of 59 seats with its ally. Victory in Tripura carries a huge significance as the Left had been ruling Tripura continuously for 25 years.

Chalo Paltai catches fancy

From zero seats in 2013 to forming a government today bears testimony to the efficacy and untiring efforts of the party’s poll machinery under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Party President Amit Shah. Of course the slogan of ‘Chalo Paltai’, borrowed from a 2011 Bengali film based on the lives and desires of the present-day generation, and the promise of development worked and overthrew the ‘sarkar’ of Manik Sarkar. For the record, Tripura has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Yet, the CPM could only offer its empty rhetoric of egalitarian revolution. The Left’s outdated ideology of an egalitarian revolution stood nowhere before the BJP’s strategic move to promise development and change. The 25 years of Left rule in Tripura has now collapsed as BJP has stormed the Communist citadel to secure a two-thirds majority in the 60-member House ending Manik Sarkar’s four-term stint as Chief Minister. The ruling CPM, which had 48.11 per cent votes in 2013 election, managed 42.6 per cent vote share this time, but the Left Front was trounced in the numbers game, dropping from 50 to just 16 seats. The Congress was decimated — it had 10 seats and 36.53 per cent vote share in 2013, but drew a blank this time.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet: “This journey from ‘Shunya’ to ‘Shikhar’ has been made possible due to a solid development agenda and the strength of our organization”. BJP president Amit Shah said his party’s impressive victory was a sign of things to come in the next few elections and had energised party cadres for the 2019 elections. However, CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury alleged that the BJP used “money and muscle power in Tripura”.

Conceding space

It is clear that BJP’s gains in Tripura and Nagaland came at the cost of the Congress which conceded space to the saffron party. The Congress revival in Gujarat, the by-election wins for Congress in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the emergence of Rahul Gandhi may have given the impression that Modi magic was waning. No more. The fact is that the North-East results have dissipated some of the momentum Rahul Gandhi gained after Gujarat The North-East results mean that not all is lost for the BJP. In the 2013 assembly polls, it won just 1.5 per cent vote-share and zero seats. To raise the bar to 43 per cent of vote-share on its own steam appears incredible. The BJP won not only the urban areas around Agartala but also tribal areas across south, central and eastern Tripura. The trend continued in Nagaland too where it won 12 seats with 15.3 per cent vote-share (up from 1.8 per cent). The strategic alliance with the National Democratic Progressive Party which registered victory in 16 seats showed the craftsmanship of the party. In Meghalaya no political party has ever won an absolute majority since 1976. Even in this state, the BJP has significantly increased its vote share from 1.3 per cent to 9.6 per cent.

Northeastern states account for 25 Lok Sabha seats and BJP will be hoping to offset possible electoral losses in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh or elsewhere with gains in this region. The party has done well to not ignore small states. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah addressed more election rallies than any Congress leader, past or present, even chiding Congress President Rahul Gandhi by tweeting that “elections were perhaps being held in Italy”, taking a jibe over Congress chiefs visit to his ailing ‘nani’ in Italy .

Deer caught in headlights

Ironically, the Congress has been like a deer caught in the headlights as the grand old party was left high and dry in Meghalaya despite emerging as the single largest party. Conrad Sangma-led National People’s Party has assumed office with the BJP as a partner. This habit of being always the bridesmaid, never the bride, it seems has become the signature style of the Congress. It was in Manipur where with 28 seats and being the single largest party, it gave way to a politically alert BJP which cobbled up majority. It happened in Goa assembly where Congress was the single largest party with 17 seats to the BJP’s 13, but again the agile BJP was able to form the government with like-minded legislators. The Congress has been like a deer caught in the headlights while the BJP learnt the formula of forming governments after governments. In Meghalaya, with just two seats to boast of, it played the kingmaker.

Results and after

The BJP had given the catchy slogan of “Congress Mukt Bharat” but now it emerges that for any incumbent state government ruled by non-BJP parties, it would be difficult to take on aggression of the party at the Centre. The BJP’s motive of creating an Opposition-free nation is becoming a reality. The coming together of secular and democratic parties with a common minimum programme can perhaps work. Two developments in the aftermath of the saffron sweep in the North-East are noteworthy. One is that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati who has hitherto been averse to pre-poll alliances has extended support to her bete noire Samajwadi Party in Phulpur and Gorakhpur Lok Sabha by-elections in Uttar Pradesh. Though she has made it clear that this does not amount to a formal alliance for the 2019 Lok Sabha election, but realization seems to have dawned on her that the BSP needs to back the strongest Opposition party to take on the BJP. It could be the beginning of a new era in politics.

Amidst the razing of Lenin statue in the North-East, desecration of Ambedkar’s in Uttar Pradesh and BJP trying damage control, another development of significance was the TDP’s decision to pull out its ministers from the Modi government. This certainly not only plays a spoiler in the BJP’s celebrations, it also casts a shadow over its poll fortunes in Andhra Pradesh, the State that sends 25 members to the Lok Sabha. As a co-incidence, the entire North-Eastern states send as many members to the Lok Sabha. It would be interesting to watch how politics evolves in different states post the North-East onslaught by the BJP.

Meanwhile, in the Hindi heartland, the winning experiment of the SP-BSP alliance for the by-polls could mean a bigger alliance for the next general election. The shocking debacle of the BJP in the UP and Bihar by-elections could serve as encouragement for Opposition parties to form an alliance to defeat the surge of the saffron party.