The Bharatiya Janata Party has an electoral machine. There seems to be no other way to put it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah have put together a playbook that has been wildly successful, turning huge swathes of the country saffron over the past four years. The latest to be added to the BJP kitty were Tripura and, most likely, Nagaland, two states from North East India for which elections results were announced on Saturday. A third state, Meghalaya, ended with a hung assembly, but may yet see the BJP be a part of the alliance that comes to power.
Put together, that means the BJP is now in power, either directly or through an alliance, in 21 out of India’s 29 states. Or as Shah put it, “we have an MP in Ladakh and Kerala. We have a government in Kohima and in Kutch”. For a party that was once confined to the so-called cow belt and states where Hindi was the primary language, the BJP is now the dominant electoral player in every region of the country, barring the deep south and a portion of the east. It almost seems easier now to list out the states where the party does not have any presence, rather than the ones where it is influential.
Looked at one way, Saturday’s results were not hugely significant, considering they took place in states that send, altogether, just five Members of Parliament to the Lok Sabha. Yet it was the perception of the BJP becoming the primary player across the North East, a region where five years ago it barely registered any presence outside of the occasional partner, that spoke volumes.
It has long been conventional wisdom that states in the North East of India tend to flip allegiances towards the party in power at the Centre, simply because more than 80% of their finances come from New Delhi. But even that phenomenon, which usually involves regional parties signing up to be part of the ruling alliance, cannot by itself explain the massive victory the Bharatiya Janata Party posted in Tripura on Saturday.
The scale of the victory was apparent enough in the bare facts of the election: The BJP went from having no seats in 2013 – indeed, it had forfeited its deposit in 49 out of 50 contested seats that year – to having a whopping 35 in 2018. That put the saffron party above the halfway mark in the 60-strong Assembly in the same year that it opened its account.
Almost as impressive was its vote share, which went up from 1.54% in 2013 to 44% in 2018, the exact same percentage as the votes garnered by the Left, which had been in power in Tripura for 25 years. That is not a fluke, even if it does take advantage of favourable conditions, as you would expect any politician to. No, Tripura makes it evident: The BJP has built a truly formidable election machine.
Which is not to say that it always operates in the same way. The win in Tripura is credited to occupying entirely the space of the Opposition, pulling in leaders from other parties and utilising the organising capacity of both the BJP cadres and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
In Nagaland and Meghalaya, the other states that had results declared on Saturday, the BJP did not make massive dents, although the party did manage to significantly improve its vote share. Instead, it worked with regional parties to try and build a presence, tying up successfully with the newly formed National Democratic People’s Party in Nagaland and two individual MLAs to cross the halfway mark. Meghalaya, with a hung verdict, remains inconclusive, though the BJP with just 2 seats is still trying to cobble together an alliance with the National People’s Party.
Bereft of context, the results on Saturday were something of a mixed bag: The BJP won handsomely in Tripura, is likely to come to power in Nagaland but only as a junior partner, and picked up just two seats in Meghalaya, though it may well still be part of the government. But zoom out a bit, and you will see that a party that had negligible presence in the North East half a decade ago, other than through alliance partners, is now at the helm in five out of the seven.
Though the BJP has used alliances with other parties to build its presence in the North East, what it is doing significantly is to also steadily increase its own vote share. This has worked best in places where it is going up against another national party, like the Left or the Congress. But it has registered success, even if modest, in other places too, like Meghalaya, where it may have only won two seats but did manage to haul in a respectable 9.6% of the vote.
The North East is, effectively, in the BJP’s kitty for now. It is in power, along with allies, in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura. It remains to be seen what will happen in Meghalaya. And Mizoram goes to polls by the end of this year, with the BJP now likely to be in position to turn the Congress out there as well. Only Sikkim, not always considered part of this grouping, remains, and that too simply because the BJP seems to not be sure whether the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front is an ally or not.
This means the BJP is likely to turn its attention to the places where it does not yet have a presence, especially with most analysts saying it is unlikely that it can repeat the saffron sweep it managed across the Hindi belt in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Shah, in his press conference on Saturday, singled out Odisha, West Bengal and Kerala – and left out Tamil Nadu – saying the BJP’s golden age will not have begun until those states too are won.
Considering how successful the party has been elsewhere, and the electoral ingredients of some of the BJP’s victories over the last few years which share similarities with conditions in those three states, no party or leader can afford to take Shah’s warnings lightly.