Tripura, until recently unused to anyone fussing over it, has suddenly transformed into a fortune-teller of India’s politics and politicians. The Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party’s superlative victory in the election to the Tripura Assembly has, overnight as if, shifted the spotlight from the failings of the National Democratic Alliance Government to the Modi-Amit Shah team’s strategic brilliance and recurring ability to come out on top.
On the other hand, the Congress, which had appeared to be in revival mode, has begun to be written off once again. With its vote base shifting almost en masse to the BJP, the Congress won no seats in Tripura, which was in fact why the Manik Sarkar-led Left Front government was defeated. This setback, in turn, has pushed the Congress out of the reckoning for leading a united opposition. Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who chose verdict day to visit his grandmother in Italy, to much mirthful trolling by Twitterati, has reverted to his former and seemingly default status of an ad hoc leader. The faint interest the regional parties had begun to show in Mr. Gandhi has passed and they have moved on to the familiar trope of forming a non-BJP, non-Congress third front.
Can so much turn on a verdict delivered by one little State? Tripura’s past elections have barely got a mention in the media. Mr. Sarkar was expected to win and he did. The Opposition was expected to lose and it did. The twist in the story comes from the BJP, with almost no vote in the State, pole vaulting to a 43% vote share — more than 50% with its regional ally — to pull off a stunning victory. This wasn’t the only shock and awe moment, though. The BJP went on to form a government in Nagaland and also in Meghalaya, where it won only two seats. In themselves the BJP’s Northeast manoeuvres may be insignificant for estimating its 2019 prospects. Their importance lies in demonstrating the BJP’s killer instinct and all-out will to power.
A little flashback is necessary here. Clouds of pessimism had hung over the Modi government in the days before the elections in the three northeastern States. If 2017 closed with the BJP’s barely-won victory in Gujarat, the new year brought even less cheer. The party lost critical by-elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh to the Congress and critics and admirers alike despaired at the state of the economy, seen to have been driven to the ground by the double whammy of demonetisation and a mishandled goods and services tax (GST). It was notable that the BJP did not fare well in the rural areas of Gujarat, and farmer protests in different States underlined the extent of rural debt and distress. A Lokniti-CSDS opinion poll indicated that overall satisfaction with the government had declined from 64% in May 2017 to 51% in January 2018.
The December-January period also saw frenzied protests by the Karni Sena which wanted the film Padmavat banned for allegedly trifling with Rajput sentiments. The scale of violence and the tacit support offered to the Sena by sections of the BJP discomfited many even among Mr. Modi’s legion of admirers. Unlike the spate of lynchings by gau rakshaks and attacks on young Hindu-Muslim couples and Dalits across much of north and west India, which the BJP and its followers blamed on fringe elements, there was no way to defend the spectre of BJP-run State governments scurrying to obey the diktats of the lawless Sena. The collapse of administration in these States was chillingly brought home when hoodlums attacked a school bus carrying children in Gurugram. The image the BJP conveyed as theatres were vandalised and pictures flashed of children cowering in fright, was of a party condoning violence only to appease its vote bank.
Barely had this nightmare given over when the Nirav Modi bank scam surfaced, threatening to rob the BJP of its principal plank of fighting corruption. Nobody was blaming the Prime Minister yet but the jeweller being able to avoid detection and his hurried flight abroad days before the scam got outed posed serious questions to the government.
The economic decline, failing law and order underscored by the Padmavat violence and attacks on Muslims and Dalits, not to mention the impression of inaction on corruption, all added up to what looked like early signs of disenchantment with the first majority government in 30 years. Achhe Din which the leader promised to huge expectation in 2014 increasingly resembled a bad joke on a trusting people. Against this background, it wasn’t surprising that the Congress and its newly appointed president began to be spoken of as an alternative. Mr. Gandhi, previously held to be without any attractions, had shown leadership qualities during the Gujarat campaign. There was a comfortable niceness about him which contrasted with the relentless aggression of the Prime Minister and his party chief.
But anyone who had observed how unerringly the Modi-Shah leadership turned adversity to advantage would have known the story wouldn’t end there. The Prime Minister and his chief strategist had a record of ensuring every defeat — whether in Delhi or in Bihar — was avenged the soonest. By now, it should be clear that the BJP bosses have perfected a formula which delivers victory by any means. This comprises punishing hard work, inducing defections to form a government with or without election, a loyal television media ever willing to skewer the Opposition, an army of social media trolls and brilliant use of messaging platforms like WhatsApp to communicate both real and fake news. Add to this the backing of the razor-sharp Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Mr. Modi’s enduring charisma and way with words, and you have a behemoth that cannot be beaten easily — certainly not by a Congress mired in ideological confusion and possessing a lazy leadership that, despite an astonishing run of defeats, believes 2019 is its for the asking. Consider this. In Tripura, the BJP fielded a dozen defectors, most of whom won. Earlier, it had followed the same strategy in Uttar Pradesh. The defectors had held important positions in the parent party, and took with them their massive support base.
The BJP’s conquest of the Northeast started with the defection of Himanta Biswa Sarma, who had been a minister in the Congress government in Assam. Mr. Biswa Sarma not only strategised and won the 2016 Assam election for the BJP but went on to play a key role in the BJP’s subsequent successes in the Northeast. The party induced wholesale defection of Congress MLAs in Arunachal Pradesh and snatched away Manipur from under the Congress’s nose — a feat it would repeat in Meghalaya. Mr. Biswa Sarma would boast that he had stitched up the post-poll Meghalaya alliance in 15 minutes.
But can the razzmatazz of winning and snatching elections indefinitely help the BJP? Can strategy alone substitute for delivery on the ground? And what of the image that its cadre are inherently violent, reinforced by the recent attacks on Lenin and Periyar statues? This can restrict the party’s expansion in the south and further alienate allies like the Telugu Desam Party. The BJP must engage with these questions in the one year left for the general election. For his part, Rahul Gandhi should will himself to stay the course and borrow at least a bit of the smartness that his primary adversary seems to possess in abundance.