Did BJP win Northeast? Answer is yes and no
By Pradip Phanjoubam
June in Guwahati can be oppressively sultry. This is especially so for those who descend and halt in this rapidly growing and congested city from the other hilly states of the Northeast. It was a particularly hot day in the city last fortnight when I took an Uber cab to a newly sprung up exclusive outlet of a well-known international brand of outdoor sports equipment and accessories some distance from my hotel. The cab driver, a caste Hindu Assamese from Mangaldoi, about 70km from Guwahati, is friendly, frank and talkative. We were in a conversation sooner than we realised, initially meandering through mundane formalities of sighs about Guwahati weather, growing traffic indiscipline etc.
My driver’s openness emboldens me to ask who he voted for in the Parliamentary elections. Prompt comes the reply “BJP”, in a tone which said loudly it could not have been otherwise. Curious but conscious it can get sensitive I am careful not to sound interrogative: “Why?”. He did not have a ready answer and fumbles a little before coming out with his best: “They are better than the Congress”. I decide to press on: “What about CAB?”. I did not have to expand this acronym for Citizenship Amendment Bill. Everybody in the Northeast knows this as CAB, and probably my driver would have been confused if I had used the expanded term. “It won’t happen”, his answer now sounds more like a wish. “But the BJP promised to bring it back”, I remind him. He was silent for a few seconds before answering: “Everything will go up in flames if it does”, unaware of the inherent contradiction in his postures.
This ambivalence has become a character of politics in the Northeast, perhaps even more so in the hill states than in Assam, arguably the closest to “mainstream” India amongst them all. Hence, yet again, between the political desire and decision of the electorate has fallen the shadow. What is evident is a confounding dichotomy between two political undercurrents. On one hand is the formal multi-party electoral politics of the Indian system, and on the other the gut politics that exists at the grassroots, periodically throwing up street-fighting radicalised leadership who thrive on anti-establishment rhetoric.
The first is akin to a carnival and the people are prone to be swept along by the dominant political trends in the country it is coloured by. The BJP is in power at the Centre today so the direction of this wind in much of the Northeast tilts towards the BJP, but if it is Congress at the Centre tomorrow, the tilt can shift back towards the Congress. Unlike the first, the second political undercurrent is more fundamental, subterranean and constant. It is a more faithful reflection of the core vulnerabilities and insecurities of the place, and the people’s intuitive defensive responses conditioned by these weaknesses. Expectedly it has remained unwavering regardless of which political formation assumes state power.
But the two coexist within the same chronological time frame, though on different psychological planes, and like my Guwahati cab driver who voted BJP but was opposed to the party’s core agenda, the Northeast electorate more often than not adopt both without any sense of unease. This was seen many times before, including in the manner iconic campaigner against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, Irom Sharmila, was rejected by the Manipur electorate who so vocally revile this draconian Act. Looked another way, this dichotomy is a continuing failure of the larger constitutional politics for its inability or unwillingness to sublimate and harness the latter strain into its fold so as to be a truer representative of the soul of the place. Until this has happened, electoral politics in the region is destined to remain superficial.
The BJP government in its last avatar had pushed the CAB which seeks to provide non-Muslim illegal immigrants an easier route to Indian citizenship, but Parliament lapsed before the Bill was passed. Back in power, they are likely to introduce the Bill again. A great section of the Northeast vehemently opposed the Bill but the reason is often misunderstood. It was not against discrimination against Muslim immigrants alone, but against any move to legalise any immigrant group regardless of religious affiliations. This has often been characterised as an inherent xenophobia or reverse racism, but are these labels justified? For the response could also very well be interpreted as self-preservation instinct of small marginalised indigenous communities, whose languages and cultures are already vulnerable, or even critically endangered by UNESCO definition, on account of demographic marginalisation in their traditional homes because of unregulated inflow of settlers? The legitimacy of policy response to large scale immigration in the Northeast hence will depend on who is answering this question.
Another interesting question follows. The BJP this time garnered 14 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats in the Northeast. Can this be any indicator the party has won the Northeast? Given the nature of Northeast politics profiled earlier, the answer probably is “yes” in form but “no” in substance.
(A slightly abridged version of this article was first published in The Telegraph, Kolkata)
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