Why North-East is important to Modi and BJP
No matter how some may try to downplay the results of the recent Assembly elections in three north-eastern States -- Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya -- saying they constitute only five Lok Sabha constituencies, they are undoubtedly significant for national politics. The unequivocal ouster of the Left from Tripura after its uninterrupted reign of 25 years would by itself qualify as a watershed even without counting BJPs “shunya to shikhar” triumph. Similarly, the reduction of the Congress to near irrelevance in the region is also only half the story.
For the BJP, of course, much more was at stake than capturing power in three more States to reverse the perception about the slide of its popularity after the party's underwhelming performance in Gujarat and subsequent setbacks suffered in the by-polls of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. A loss in Tripura after the hype created by the “Chalo Paltai” (Come Let’s Change) call would have been more than a loss of face for the BJP. It would have put a huge question mark on the party’s ambition for a truly national footprint, going beyond its traditional bastion of the Hindi-belt. But, above all, it would have raised doubts about Prime Mjnister Narendra Modi’s pan-Indian appeal. Other than Atal Bihari Vajpayee, arguably no other leader outside the Nehru dynasty has held sway like him from North to South and West to East (in that direction) in the popular imagination.
Mainstreaming of India's North East has been more rhetoric than action for all previous Governments, with the notable exception of Vajpayee’s NDA years that saw the creation of DONER (Ministry of Development of North East Region) in 2001 and the initiation of several mega development projects. But, thereafter, it slipped back into a state of low engagement with DONER becoming a parking slot for leaders who had to be accommodated with a ‘meaty’ (in terms of budget) portfolio and became for all practical purposes a Ministry of Cultural Festivals and Conferences. Often, one understands, the Ministry had difficulty in spending the funds that were allocated to it. That for two terms then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was sent to the Rajya Sabha from the North-East as an adoptive domicile of Assam made little difference.
This arrangement seemed to suit everyone in the game. The North-East warlords were left alone to fight their own local battles. The national parties were happy at minimal interference from them in Delhi politics. Everyone made money from the spoils of exploitation of natural resources of the region, such as forest produce and coal, and massive outlays for building roads and infrastructure, not to mention smuggling through large tracts of international borders on three sides. Terrorism was another indigenous 'industry' from which politicians benefitted the most.
Narendra Modi was smart to recognise the multiple opportunities in the North-East and, therefore, kicked off his 'Act East' policy in right earnest from Day One. The change of name from the earlier 'Look East' policy was more than mere semantics because Modi had the task cut out for his Government.
The North-East was important for Modi for several reasons. First, on a somewhat selfish note if one were to call it so, he and his able deputy realised that from an election strategy perspective, expansion of the BJP’s footprint into the East and North-East was critical to insure against natural attrition of the party's seats in the Hindi heartland that was bound to happen in future.
There was also geo-politics and statesmanship involved in large measure. It would be reasonably safe to assume that Modi’s National Security Adviser would have underscored the need to secure the eastern borders without being solely focussed on Pakistan in the west. This was imperative because of the rise of China and Beijing trying to hem in India by increasing its influence in Bangladesh and Myanmar, apart from being increasingly prickly about Arunachal Pradesh.This meant massive investment in infrastructure and development on the one hand and bringing stability in the disturbed States on the other. The Naga Accord, though much criticised later, was a first tentative step on the latter front.
While people of the North-East were fiercely protective of their culture, inept handling of their aspirations had turned sub-nationalism into anti-nationalism. This was further fuelled by the influx of outsiders through the porous borders – especially of Bangladeshis. This had, over the years, changed the demographics of the region, in particular Assam. Here was a space to be reclaimed for which the BJP was best placed to capitalise in the wave of nationalism that is sweeping across the world. The BJP-RSS masterminds would not miss out this vacuum and it is through this window master strategists like Ram Madhav entered the North-East while others were busy playing with their poodles.
Linked to this was the much bigger question of addressing the aspirations of the people to join the mainstream. As more youngsters move out from the region to the mainland for education and employment not only do they see the development happening in the rest of the country but also their parents and families who come to visit are exposed to the changes. Barring Assam, which has historically been better developed; in the other States they found economic power concentrated in the hands of a few, that too mostly those engaged in dubious activities.
This was a section waiting to be wooed and Modi addressed them directly at every turn, striking the right note, while RSS cadre did the ground work and his lieutenants made the tactical moves. Aerial cover supported all of this and, as Modi mentioned in his victory speech, Union Ministers visited the North-East every fortnight by turn. This calls for some foresight that even the worst critic of the Prime Minister would have to grudgingly acknowledge.
Whether this would translate into the BJP sweeping the North-East in the next Lok Sabha polls one cannot predict with certainty. But, what it has achieved is the irreversible political integration of the region with the rest of India. Future parliamentary elections will not be fought only on local issues but with an eye to where the country at large is headed because people in the North-East will no longer decouple their own future from that of the mainland.
By default Modi has also brought the promise of 'Achchhe Din' to the North East. If he fails to deliver, they will be even less forgiving not just towards him or the BJP but whichever party is in power in Delhi and go back to charting their own future in isolation with a further feeling of further alienation.
Luckily, Modi had started the homework much earlier and there he had a head start of four years. If some of those projects start bearing fruit before 2019, Modi can hope for a large proportion of the 24-odd seats between the six north-eastern States to fall into his kitty.