BJP’s Electoral Success in Northeast India a Blow to the Left

The ruling party of India, the BJP, strengthened its position in the country’s northeast after winning elections in three states, with the victory in Tripura ending 25 years of Communist rule. Journalist Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty discusses the BJP’s victory and the region’s political shift

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Last Saturday, the ruling party of India, that would be BJP, strengthened its position in the country’s northeast. The victory in Tripura particularly ends 25 years of continuous Communist Party rule, CPM. Plastered all over social media, one could see videos of bulldozers tearing down statues of Vladimir Lenin in Tripura, symbolic of the end of the era. Elections were held in three states, Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya, where about nine million Indians live. The three states have about 5.6 million voters. And to give us more context to understand this victory of the BJP and its allies, and of course, the losses experienced by Congress and the Communist Party, I’m joined by Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty. She’s the deputy editor of thewire.com India. Sangeeta, thank you so much for joining us.

SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY: Thank you.

SHARMINI PERIES: Sangeeta, let’s start off by describing what exactly happened, who was in power in these states before and what the election results produced?

SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY: The three elections happened in three northeastern states, Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland. To begin with, Tripura, it had seen 25 years of continuous left rule. And in Nagaland, it’s like a regional party, a local party, which has also been ruling since 2003. And in Meghalaya, it was the Congress rule for the last one decade. Now after the elections what we see in Tripura, it is a BJP government, the left rule is over and in Nagaland what we see is BJP has come to power by sharing it with another regional party called NDPP, so the earlier party the Naga People’s Front, is no more in power. And then comes to Meghalaya, the Congress rule is over, now BJP has joined a kind of a coalition government, a multi-party coalition government led by again, a regional party called NPP, which is National People’s Party.

SHARMINI PERIES: So, what we are trying to understand here, is what happened in Tripura? Is it disillusionment with the left or the northeast is feeling left out of…?

SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY: What you see, there is only one, if you want to see a common thread in the elections in all the three states, it’s obviously empty incumbency has played a big role and these are all very old governments like in Tripura, it was 25 years and 20 years under the same chief minister. And in Nagaland what you see since 2003, is a single party running it along with BJP as a junior partner. And in Meghalaya too, it’s like a 10 year old government, which is no more. The empty incumbency was pretty strong. The other thing is also now the BJP is trying to make inroads into northeast and it’s gone there a very aggressive campaign which has given them results.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Sangeeta. So then, obviously these states are rather important for the left, but how important is it for the BJP and its allies to gain control of the northeast in this way?

SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY: See, it’s actually, the BJP has been trying to make inroads into the eight northeastern states for a long time, but the real, the big national player has always been the Congress. And now when you see that the Congress is no more in power at the center in Delhi. So, it’s given BJP the opportunity to go and try out these newer areas. It is also not playing the kind of politics or the campaign is basically around bringing development to the region. Remember this region has been an insurgency infested area and bordering China, Burma, Bangladesh, Bhutan. It has most of the Indian borders are on that side.

So, it’s a very sensitive zone and also people have always felt a bit neglected by the mainstream in there and by the central government for a long time. So, with the promise of bringing people to the mainstream in there, BJP has tried to enter the region. And I’d say, to a large extent, it has been successful so far because we see the results of these three states, particularly in Tripura, it has got a huge mandate and in Nagaland it has for the first time been able to win 12 seats in the 60 member assembly.

But in Meghalaya, it’s faced a little problem because these are, it’s a Christian majority state and even the Prime Minister himself said that we don’t play politics of religion or caste. It also brought in the Christian face in K.J. Alphons, he is the Union Tourism Minister. But even then I felt that the mainstream Indian politics, the Hindu politics that it follows the mainstream India, caught up with it and that’s why it couldn’t do as it hoped to. So, basically, what I’m trying to say is that they were trying to change the campaign there, but in some places became successful, not in all.

SHARMINI PERIES: Sangeeta, describe for us what happened. The Communist Party was in power for 25 years. What is it that they could not particularly deliver for these people that you said had certain aspirations in terms of development. So, what is it? Was it jobs? Was it the lack of ability to progress, which means that there wasn’t enough business outside of the government jobs that were provided for most people that lived there?

SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY: In Tripura, there has always been a very strong vote share, based on percentage of empty left votes. But people were always looking at Congress to be able to provide the alternative. But, which Congress couldn’t, also because of its…in the center. It’s not very friends with [the] left, but it also needs the left for various passage of bills and various other things to run the daily business, when it was a…government, even prior to that. So, people always said that they didn’t have much choice. Now this time the BJP has worked on that empty left vote share and for two and a half years has worked very hard on that. And then that has delivered them the results.

The other thing is also the left has been able to get rid of insurgency in that area. Remember it borders, the state borders, three sides of the border is Bangladesh. So, it has been able to successfully remove also what we call that Draconian AFSPA, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, so it has been successful in controlling insurgency, but it was not able to address the aspirations of the young people. The literacy rate is quite high in that state. But compared to that, people have very little job avenues. The best job that they could get is kind of a teacher, and also in the government establishment, and government has been the main job provider. But then you see the other side of India, the rest of India where it’s growing, business is growing. So, a lot of people have these aspirations, particularly the younger lot. So, they feel that BJP could give them that. So, it was an aspirational campaign that BJP did had also bore fruits for them.

SHARMINI PERIES: Sangeeta, if the BJP was able to reach the aspirations or at least promise development and growth in the region, and give hope to the people, why was it that the left and here, the Communist Party in particular, was not able to do so?

SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY: The main reason is that they have not been able to bring in a lot of business from outside, the private enterprises. Every time they were thinking about setting up their own government run projects, they were doing certain things like rubber plantation projects and certain things of that sort, but it was not enough to respond to the gamut of unemployment. It has the highest unemployment rate in the country. So, that itself was not, I mean, it’s a huge issue, and sometimes I feel that maybe this government alone is not capable of handling that amount of unemployment. But I feel that they lagged a little bit somewhere in addressing this issue. They thought that they would be able to handle it, but many people are migrating out of that state, particularly the younger lot. And then they come to the other parts and they see certain things that are happening and they want all of that back, which was something that the left failed to address.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Sangeeta. What do these shifts, these political shifts now mean for national politics and what’s happening in Delhi?

SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY: Now, I don’t think that the elections in these three states is going to hugely affect the national politics. But certainly, some things will happen, like the bigger elections are coming. The 2019 general elections are coming where Modi will go for a rerun. And then elections are coming in states like the Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh. These are the big states, Odisha. So, interestingly, the results are certainly going to be a huge morale boost for the BJP…. And it may influence just a bit, the voters too. But elections, particularly in the states are fought on local issues. So, I don’t think it’s going to be a huge effect on national politics, but yes, in terms of seeing the left or the Congress or the other parties coming together as a united opposition to take on BJP, is going to be affected by that.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Sangeeta. Thank you so much for joining us today and we’ll be following this. And I hope you can join us again in the future. Thank you.

SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY: Thank you so much.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.