Three weeks ago, at the Central Hall of Parliament, BJP president Amit Shah told me quite categorically that the CPI(M) would be swept away from Tripura in this election. To be honest, I felt he was overstating the extent of the BJP surge in a State where it had polled less than two per cent of the popular vote in 2013 and had never won either an Assembly or Lok Sabha seat. That the BJP was dominating the anti-Left space and had squeezed out the Congress was apparent. But against the excitement and momentum the BJP campaign had generated was the organisational depth of the CPI(M) and its formidable election machinery. In the end, the intensity of accumulated resentment against 25 years of Left rule proved too powerful. Tripura witnessed one of the biggest electoral upsets by recording a clear and emphatic victory, its coalition winning the endorsement of both the Bengalis and the tribal communities.
It has been customary for Middle India to pay little or no heed to the manner Indian democracy functions in the North-eastern States of India. Worse, there is an inclination to debunk its workings with dollops of condescension, as Congress leader Ashok Gehlot did when he brushed aside the Tripura outcome as indicative of the North-east’s tendency to tilt in the direction of the Centre.
Why, therefore, should the Tripura verdict be viewed as different, apart, of course, from the sheer magnitude of the change?
To begin with, the battle in Tripura was not a clash between regional parties that are often inclined to negotiate their positions on the politics at the Centre. Initially it was viewed as a triangular battle between the incumbent CPI(M), headed by a man who was often praised in Left-liberal circles as the most honest and unassuming Chief Minister in India, a weakened Congress and a rising BJP. True, the BJP had among its candidates a disproportionate chunk of erstwhile Congressmen – including a former PCC president. But that is not surprising considering that at one time the Congress was the only worthwhile opposition to the Left. Once the centre of gravity of anti-Left politics shifted away from the Congress – a process that began in 1996 when the Congress and Left teamed up at the Centre to keep out the BJP – there was an inclination of these activists to scour for new homes. In West Bengal, they rallied round Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress. In Tripura, they found a home in the BJP.
Secondly, in the two months between the results of the Gujarat Assembly elections and Saturday’s results from Tripura, the media had been systematically broadcasting the apparent retreat of the BJP and the simultaneous advance of a ‘rejuvenated’ Congress under Rahul Gandhi. The gains made by the Congress in Gujarat, its wins in three by-elections in Rajasthan and its success in retaining two seats in Madhya Pradesh were cited as evidence of a growing mood shift that would culminate in the BJP’s defeat in the 2019 general election. It was this reading of the public mood that was also a factor in the very convoluted (and largely media) campaign to link the scams of diamond trader Nirav Modi to the BJP Government and even the Prime Minister.
What Tripura has demonstrated is of considerable significance. Apart from indicating that the BJP has enough political reserves to mount an extremely successful campaign in an area where it barely had a presence, the victory suggested the continuing attraction of both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Government at the Centre. Exit polls have indicated that the support for the BJP was particularly marked among the youth, suggesting they associate the party with the yearning for a better life. BJP campaigners have also suggested that women voters too gave exceptional support to the BJP. Both these trends reinforce the findings from the Gujarat elections.
Thirdly, despite putting on a brave face and pointing to the Congress’ relatively better performance in Meghalaya, there is little doubt that the Opposition to the BJP is shell- shocked. That it was the formidable CPI(M) that suffered a crushing defeat has only made it worse. Mamata, for example, admitted quite openly that she would have been happy had the CPI(M) won in Tripura. It is likely that the Tripura outcome will have a direct bearing on the outcome of the Prakash Karat-Sitaram Yechuri difference. It will perhaps even tip the scales in favour of the incumbent general secretary and encourage a larger anti-BJP mahagathbandhan.
On the other hand, the smaller regional parties that have limited national ambitions could, however, be tempted to gravitate towards the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance. My feeling is that the Tripura verdict will encourage a move towards bipolarity – BJP versus anti-BJP – for the 2019 election. This implies that the BJP has to persevere relentlessly in its bid to enlarge its social base, particularly the poorer sections that have not been traditional supporters of the party.
In short, the next 12 months has to witness the Modi Government has to work overtime to ensure maximum delivery of its Central schemes. People will renew their mandate for Modi once they are convinced that the direction of governance is positive and that the quality of their lives is improving. The Prime Minister’s cult following is based on a combination of both hope and performance. And a fierce sense of integrity.
(The writer is Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha & a Senior Columnist)