Since Saturday, a new narrative has emerged. The Bharatiya Janata Party has swept the North East, decimating all opposition, including the Congress and the Left. A part of the country that was once cut off from the national mainstream has now been engulfed in the saffron deluge.
It is true that the BJP has made remarkable gains in the North East. From no government and few seats in 2014, when the BJP came to power at the Centre, it is now part of government in six out of seven states. But a closer look at electoral maps of the North East suggests claims of a BJP wave may be overstated.
In elections held in the North East a decade ago, the BJP had cornered just 2.6% of the vote share. This year, the same three states went to elections. In Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura combined, the BJP managed 26.47% of the vote share. A sharp increase, certainly, but a wave?
It is not just about vote share, which after all is a function of the number of seats contested but even when we consider the seats won, a look at the constituency map of all seven states of the North East shows the saffron party remains a patchy though pivotal presence in the region.
The North East is a tremendously diverse region, and each of the seven states has a distinct politics. Christian majority Nagaland and Meghalaya, for instance, are vastly different from the border states of Tripura and Assam. Within states there may be several different regions. Take Assam, home to the autonomous council areas of Bodoland, the Muslim-majority districts of Goalpara and Dhubri as well as to the districts of Upper Assam, once the epicentre of Assamese nationalism. To speak of sweeping the North East as a whole is a Delhi-centric fallacy.
Arunachal Pradesh, where the BJP came to power in 2016, was an unelected victory, engineered through defections and, it is alleged, by the Centre wielding undue influence on the office of the governor. Elsewhere, the party’s rapid advance seems to be fuelled by two factors. First, by smart alliances and focus on target constituencies, it is able to ensure high strike rate. Where the saffron party did not have the seats, it was able to cobble together strategic alliances with regional parties, both before and after elections, to ensure it had a place in government.
The Meghalaya factor
In these elections alone, the idea of a saffron wave needs to be interrogated. But first let’s acknowledge that it won Tripura convincingly. In a 60-member assembly, the BJP will have 35 seats, enough to form government even without its ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura. The BJP won 35 seats with 43% of the vote share while the Left managed only 16 seats with 42.7%, but that is because the BJP contested 51 seats and the Left 59. The BJP thus won 70% of the seats it contested, against 29% for the CPI(M). But the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura did even better, since it won 8 of the 9 seats it contested, which is a strike rate of 89%.
Even if the Tripura results are called a sweep for the BJP, it did not exactly “win” the Nagaland and Meghalaya elections. In Nagaland, it increased its tally from one seat in the 2013 elections to 12 this time. Its vote share increased from 1.8% in 2013 to 15.3% this year. Considering the BJP only fielded candidates in 20 seats, this was a very respectable showing. But the party still has just a fifth of the assembly seats and will play second fiddle in the alliance that finally comes to power.
In Meghalaya, these elections were decidedly a vote against the BJP, which won only two seats in spite of an energetic poll campaign. These were unreserved and largely urban constituencies clustered around the capital of Shillong. It did not make a dent in the Garo Hills, where agitations around the BJP’s beef politics were most intense. It did not even gain seats from the Jaintia Hills, a hub of resentment against the Congress. Part of the state’s coal belt, these areas had been hit economically after the court’s mining ban in 2014. It was felt that the Congress had not done enough to stop it while the BJP promised to reverse the ban.
The BJP will come to power in Meghalaya on the strength of regional allies. The National People’s Party gained an impressive 19 seats, up from two in the 2013 elections, and is likely to be the fulcrum around which government is formed. The BJP and the National People’s Party managed to cobble together a majority with smaller parties but it remains an uneasy alliance. On Monday, there were rumours of a rift in the new coalition, with the Hill States People’s Democratic Party reportedly objecting to a tie up with the BJP.
The Meghalaya verdict reveals deep wells of tribal resentment against the BJP that have not been stirred by the so-called saffron wave.
Meanwhile, though it has virtually been wiped out off Nagaland and Tripura, the Congress managed to hold its own in Meghalaya. In spite of visible anti-incumbency and a government that was perceived to be lax and corrupt, it managed to emerge as the single largest party, with 21 seats and a vote share of 28.5%. But the Congress ceding ground to the BJP has become a pattern in the last few years.
Take Manipur, where the BJP came to power last year. The Congress won 28 seats to the BJP’s 21, with only a slightly lower vote share, 35.1% against 36.3%. But it was the BJP which managed to persuade smaller parties to form the ruling coalition.
It was different in Assam, where the BJP scored its biggest win in the North East before Tripura. The Congress got 31% of the vote share after contesting 122 seats while the BJP got 29.5% and won 60 seats out of the 89 it contested. To cobble together a majority, the party had already forged a “rainbow coalition” in the diverse state, tying up with the Bodoland People’s Front, the Asom Gana Parishad and other smaller tribal parties.
With the BJP forming the Union government, the centre of gravity has shifted towards the party in these poor states of the North East, heavily dependent on funds from Delhi. It was the same in the United Progressive Alliance years, when the Congress had a presence in all state governments in the region apart from Nagaland. From being a non-entity a few years ago, the saffron party has certainly become a force to reckon with in most states of the North East. The Congress is also a shrinking presence with no energy to reverse the trend. But verdicts of a saffron tide and a Congress disappearance would be premature.