From the NE, the quest for deeper integration

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Prashant Jha

It is always difficult to interpret the meaning of an election outcome. Did a party win because of resentment against the incumbent? Did it win because of its own appeal? Did it win because of leadership or candidates? Did it win because it got the arithmetic right?
This is particularly true when it comes to understanding the Northeast. The term ‘Northeast’ itself does no justice to the deeply heterogeneous nature of the region. And each state that went to polls – Tripura, Nagaland, Meghalaya – is diverse in its own right.
Each state has also thrown up different results. The BJP has swept Tripura, winning a two-thirds majority with an ally. The BJP is all set to form the government in Nagaland, but only with a regional party and a strong regional leader, Neiphiu Rio as the senior partner. In Meghalaya, the verdict is complex. The Congress does not have a majority, but the BJP too has won only 2 seats. The key lies in the hands of National People’s Party – which the Meghalaya electorate knew would ally with the BJP after the elections – and a range of smaller forces.
But if a broad pattern has to be drawn, it is the rise of the BJP and the fact that it could be in power in all 3 states.
There is little doubt that these results show the party’s strategic outlook and tactical brilliance. Its position as the ruling party at the Centre; its adaptability; its alliance-building skills; its openness to import leaders from other parties to make up for organisational deficit; the work of the Sangh; the failure of Congress and the Left; a propaganda blitz have all aided the growth. It also shows smarter candidate selection in a context where personalities matter more than ideological platforms and party symbols, and abundant resources.
The BJP is indeed India’s greatest election machine.
But there could well be another reading of this set of elections, beyond the party’s tactical genius. It is to look at what the voters of the region are saying. What do the results tell us about what citizens want?
There is no doubt that identity remains a key determinant of voting preferences. The tribal voter in Tripura felt cheated by the CPM; the tribes and clans of Nagaland voted for their own community representatives as did the Garos and Khasis in Meghalaya; the Naga political issue and quest for recognition of the Naga identity remains alive.
The fact that BJP had to constantly reassure Christians in both Nagaland and Meghalaya that it had no desire to impose a certain cultural agenda showed that citizens in the Northeast – rightly – remain particular about their distinct culture, identity, food habits, and will maintain it.
But this does not tell the whole story.
Across travels in the 3 states, there was a common thread among young people. They looked wistfully at the pace of change and the scale of opportunities in the bigger cities – Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pune. Many had studied in those places, some had worked there; many more aspired to move to these centres. And all of it was because they felt their own states did not have the same opportunities.
The BJP tapped into this and promised ‘vikas’. Narendra Modi personified it. In specific terms, this meant more connectivity with the ‘mainland’; it meant bringing the opportunities of the ‘mainland’ to the Northeast; it meant bringing the finest educational institutions here; it meant more investment in the states; it meant urbanisation and jobs; it meant ‘modernity’. And by paying so much attention, at the highest levels, the BJP pushed this message out while giving a sense of dignity and respect to the people.
This promise – of integrating a region that has been neglected, where connectivity is poor, where people have had to move out, where there is a strong sense of alienation – resonated. The key message from this election is actually the Northeast’s quest for deeper integration with the Indian development trajectory – while retaining their distinct cultural practices.
It could not have been a better opportunity for a party which sees its role as promoting ‘nationalism’. The onus lies on the BJP to deliver.(Courtesy: HT)