Saffron hills? Look closer

Has, indeed, the BJP swept the northeast? If one looks beyond the hype, it is only in Tripura that they have swept the board. Elsewhere, they have insinuated themselves into an alphabet soup of parties, bringing up the rear, while local parties cobble together their bare and flimsy majorities.

Let us begin with Meghalaya where the BJP wrested all of two seats, way behind Mukul Sangma’s Congress that took the first position with 21. Yet, the BJP is alleged to have “won” because it was tagged to a whole series of miscellaneous regional outfits comprising Conrad Sangma’s National People’s Party (19 seats), the United Democratic Party (6 seats), the People’s Democratic Front (4 seats) and the Hill State People’s Democratic Party (2 seats). Even that was not enough. It was only after they had roped in an independent—Samuel M. Sangma—that they were able to reach the magic figure. In terms of number of MLAs, the BJP’s contribution was negligible. In terms, however, of “incentives” to bring others in to negate the Congress lead in the polls, there is little room for doubt that the BJP’s contribution was crucial. The majority this government currently benefits from is so fragile, its longevity remains a serious question mark.

In Nagaland, though, the BJP clearly fared better. Of the 20 seats it contested, it won 12, while its senior partner—the National Democratic People’s Party (NDPP) of Neiphiu Rio—took 17 of the 40 they contested. Together, the NDPP and the BJP won two seats more than the Naga People’s Front (NPF). So minuscule and as yet uncertain is the margin of the NDPP-BJP claim to the crown that the pre-election chief minister, T.R. Zeliang of NPF, even refused to concede defeat.

That brings us to Tripura, where the BJP has pulled off a political miracle comparable only to the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. Yet, in the taking of this red bastion, the Trinamool’s contribution was nil. They contested as many as 24 seats, but failed to even open their score. This is significant because the very arguments being deployed to explain the crushing defeat of the left in Tripura were the ones that were used to explain the defeat of the left in West Bengal, bar one. For where Mamata had consolidated her hold on the Muslim vote by her unflinching secularism, Tripura, peopled, apart from the indigenous tribals, almost exclusively by Hindu refugees from East Pakistan, responded far more to the siren call of hindutva than the Hindus of West Bengal.

West Bengal is home to perhaps the second largest share of Muslims (after Assam). So, where the substantial Muslim community is a living reality in Mamata’s fiefdom, they are almost absent from the Tripura’s demography. While, earlier, it was the very absence of Muslims among them that made the electorate in Tripura responsive to the secular stance of the left, placed now in earshot of the alternative narrative of our nationhood, they have responded with alacrity to the BJP. Indeed, even in the tribal community, split between N.C. Debbarma’s IPFT (Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura) and Bejoy Hrangkhawl’s INPT (Indigenous National Party of Twipra), is visibly the split between the Christian tribals’ voting preference for the left and the Hindu tribals’ voting preference for the IPFT-BJP alliance.

Illustration: Bhaskaran

This is the most worrying dimension of the Tripura election. Secularism is proving vulnerable. Yet, it is secularism that holds together the astonishing diversity of our country. In the midst of this gathering gloom, comes the first inkling of what might yet restore the balance: Mayawati’s announcement of support to the Samajwadi Party in the byelections to two key Lok Sabha seats. If this presages a mahagathbandhan of secular forces for 2019, the Tripura outcome could yet be rendered an aberration.

Aiyar is a former Union minister and social commentator.