The stunning victory of the BJP in Assam and Manipur was a political miracle for a party which scored negative for long on several counts in the cauldron of nationalities, religions, tribes, migrants and refugees.
The BJP controls five of eight states in the northeast through direct rule, defections and alliances. Now, it is going all out to capture the remaining three—Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram in early 2018. It is taking the battle to the home turf of two long-serving chief ministers—Tripura’s Manik Sarkar (19 years) and Mizoram's Lal Thanhawla (17 years), while Meghalaya's Mukul Sangma is no spring chicken as he has spent seven years in the saddle.
Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha are members of the BJP’s electoral strategic group for the northeast. Sethi is political adviser to Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh and Shubhrastha is in the team of Ram Madhav, the BJP’s general secretary and in charge of the northeast. The duo has written a gripping account of how the BJP overcame its historic handicaps, and also exploited glaring mistakes made by the Congress in the run-up to the assembly elections. They claim the BJP was frank in realising some of the liabilities inherent in its perception as a Hindu- and Hindi-centric heartland party, and how it moved fast to convert them either into strengths or discard strident hindutva, especially on the issues such as beef.
The authors look at the history of the region, especially Assam, and lay the blame at the door of the Congress, especially Jawaharlal Nehru, for alienating the Assamese. They also mention on how incessant migration—both legal and illegal, from Bangladesh, exacerbated the tensions. Yet, the party understood the differing politics of the Brahmaputra and the Barak Valley.
Tarun Gogoi, the man with a grand record for electoral strategising, also helped by making what are known as unforced errors in tennis. The veteran thought he could turn the contest in Assam into an insider versus outsider contest against Modi, as was done successfully by Nitish Kumar in Bihar. The big error for Gogoi was the desertion of his powerful minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who switched and became a key strategist for Amit Shah.
Sethi and Shubhrastha narrate details of how every stratagem fell into place, including the projection of tribal leader Sarbananda Sonowal as the chief ministerial candidate. Perceptions mattered as the young and handsome Sonowal, who was once a student leader, was projected as the face of the future, while the octogenarian Gogoi was relegated to the past.
The authors are candid on the immense challenges faced by the BJP government, including how Sarma sheathed his chief ministerial ambitions. The authors also suggest it is better to allow autonomy for local leaders than impose a Congress-type high-command culture.
They conclude on a note of warning that elections are not only about professional management and data crunching, but also working on the chemistry of blending different vote-banks to vote for a party or an alliance.
The Last Battle of Saraighat: The story of the BJP’s rise in the North-east
By Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha
Pages: 182; price: Rs 599