The growing clout of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and the steady decline of the Gandhi dynasty’s Congress across India is evident again this weekend with results of assembly elections in three northeastern states that also demonstrate the fading appeal of Communist politics.
The BJP has won a substantial electoral victory in Tripura, even though it had no seats in the last assembly, ousting a Communist-led Left grouping that had ruled for 25 years. It also has a chance of forming a government in Nagaland
Ignoring political convention, it is also set to form a government in Meghalaya in coalition with a regional party, even though it won only two seats in the election, having today outmanoeuvred the Congress Party that won the most seats.
With allies, this means that it will be in power in 22, and maybe 23, of India’s 29 states, making it much more of a national party.
Congress won no seats at all in Tripura and Nagaland. Meanwhile in Meghalaya, two of its most experienced top leaders, Kamal Nath and Ahmed Patel, who flew yesterday to the state capital of Shillong to assist in the creation of a government, were sidelined while the BJP stitched up an alliance with the regional NPP.
Together, these events show the lack of skill and clout that Congress now wields. The Meghalaya coup replicates what the BJP did in Goa and Manipur last March when it formed the state governments even though Congress had won the largest number of seats.
The northeast states, where Christianity is more widespread than Hinduism, have been treated badly by Congress over the years. The party has paid more attention to maintaining existing conditions and supressing local uprisings than in development. It has also done little to assimilate the area, which lies to the east of Bangladesh and Bhutan and is linked to the rest of India by a 20-40km “chicken’s neck” strip of land coveted by neighbouring China.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) that ruled Tripura in a Left coalition for a quarter-century, has also done little for development and has allowed its administration to become seriously corrupt with rising crime. It has however held on to 45% of the vote, down just three percentage points from the last polls in 2013. Congress dropped from 36% to 2% and the BJP rose correspondingly from just 1,5% to 41%, which indicates that the BJP snatched Congress’s voters.
Having won earlier elections in Assam and Manipur, the BJP’s success this weekend shows that Modi has managed to conquer the area, despite the party’s Hindu nationalism, and despite various dominant Christian (often competing) denominations ranging from Baptists and Presbyterians to Catholics that have opposed the BJP. Tripura is Hindu-dominated, but Nagaland is over 80% Christian and Meghalaya, where Congress did well in the voting, is over 70%.
Political power in the states before the BJP won Himachal Pradesh last December and before this weekend’s results
Sitaram Yechury, the CPM general secretary, said (no doubt with substantial justification) that the BJP “unscrupulously utilised huge amounts of money power and muscle power” in Tripura to unite anti-Left parties. The BJP has however been gradually building up support in the northeast. In Nagaland, it has pulled together a peace accord to end a decades long insurgency.
It is also benefiting from years of community-based development work carried out since the 1940s by its umbrella organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), especially in remote tribal areas.
With a general election due by early next year, all regional polls are being watched closely to see whether Modi and the BJP are holding on to their appeal, and how well Congress is faring under Rahul Gandhi, its new president.
While Congress did badly in two of the northeast states, it has had some small but significant by-election successes elsewhere. It defeated BJP candidates in Rajasthan a month ago for three seats, two in parliament and one in the state assembly.
Last week Congress won two assembly seats in Madhya Pradesh. The BJP is in power in both those states and its chief ministers were closely involved in the electioneering, so the results provided Modi with a shock and the Congress with rare good news.
Last December, the BJP won the state assembly for the first time in Himachal Pradesh, a small northern state, but was re-elected in Gujarat, Modi’s home state with a reduced majority.
These results show that Modi and his colleagues are still able to win victories in new states where they spread a vision of hope for the aspirational youth, but they can face problems where they are already in power. Projected forward, Congress supporters pray that this is an indication of what could happen in the general election if voters feel short-changed over the Modi’s promises of development.
Few commentators believe that Modi and the BJP will be defeated because that would mean an improbable decline from the 2014 result when the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance won 336 out of 543 seats. But there is speculation about how far that majority might be reduced and how much Modi’s personal image and his pride would be damaged.
Modi tirade in Parliament
Modi reacted extraordinarily to the seat loss in Gujarat with a tirade (video here) lasting more than an hour in parliament on February 7 when he was replying to the president’s address. Traditionally, the prime minister would deal with forward-looking policy issues, but Modi recounted the achievements of the government in somewhat unparliamentarily tub-thumping style.
This indicated that he had been rattled by the Gujarat result, even though the BJP seats only came down from 115 to 99, maintaining a comfortable majority. After 22 years in power, this was a credible result for the BJP, but Modi seems not to have seen it as that.
Similarly at an Economic Times conference a week ago, he spelled out his list of the government’s achievements, accompanied by graphics, that seemed more of a desperate briefing presentation (video here) than a prime ministerial speech.
There are also other signs that the government is anxious to improve its record of achievements, which critics say are far less than Modi and his colleagues claim. Tackling corruption and corporate fraud are two special targets. Recent scams, with businessmen fleeing abroad, have provided opportunities for headline catching action by government departments and the investigating agencies.
The Criminal Bureau of Investigation action has also been stepped up against Karti Chidambaram, son of Palaniappan Chidambaram, a former Congress finance and home minister and a top lawyer. Karti was arrested three days ago for alleged corruption on foreign investment deals that took place when his father was finance minister – providing the BJP with a platform for alleging Congress corruption.
Karnataka is the next political battleground with elections due within three months, Congress is in power there, but it has a mixed record and the BJP is determined to win. If it succeeds, Modi and his close colleague, Amit Shah, the BJP president, are expected to consider bringing the general election forward from April-May next year to the end of this year. Elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, which are due by November-December, might be held at the same time.
Rahul in Italy
Rahul Gandhi has spent more time recently in Karnataka than in the northeast where he only attended five meetings over two days during the election campaign. He then flew on March 1 to see his grandmother in Italy, behaving as he often does by leaving the country at a crucial political time.
“My Nani is 93. She’s the kindest soul ever. This Holi weekend I’m going to surprise her! I can’t wait to give her a hug,” Gandhi tweeted.
His grandmother might have been surprised, but his critics were not. Once again, Gandhi is not in India when his party needs visible leadership, which is raising questions about his commitment to politics.
The only improvement this time was that he announced where he was going, which he used not to do on frequent trips abroad.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding The Elephant.