Post-poll survey: the BJP’s ‘Act East’ moment

The party weakened State-based outfits and embarked on the project of superimposing its Hindutva ideology on regional narratives

When the 2019 Lok Sabha election commenced, there was not much doubt about the prowess of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as far as north, central and western India were concerned. The curiosity was about the east and the south. In 2014, the BJP had a skewed base and was not able to expand enough in these two regions. Now, that has changed.

Increasing its footprint

Of course, its ‘Look East’ policy did yield positive results even in 2014 when it won Assam. Assamese society is not just plural like the rest of Indian society, it is also diverse and laden with complications that are of a historical nature. The fact that the BJP had won there was a clear indication that it would be making deep inroads into not just the Northeast, but the eastern region in general. The State that geographically links the east to the northern parts, Bihar, was also captured by the BJP in 2014. This time, the BJP has clearly established its very large and perhaps indelible footprint in the entire eastern and northeastern region.

In the case of the Northeast, years of sustained work by affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have come to fruition, with many Adivasi communities coming close to the BJP. Besides, its political flexibility has allowed the BJP to also forge local alliances with different players in the region ensuring that any non-BJP formation becomes unviable. This, of course, has a serious caveat which goes beyond electoral successes. There are many small and large insurgent groups and communities that are eager to rediscover or reassert their particular identities. The rise of the BJP in the region can only become a catalyst to the inflation of these myriad identity politics in the troubled region. It would, therefore, be a huge challenge for the BJP to ensure that inter-community negotiations take place along with smart political manoeuvres.

Beyond the Northeast, the BJP must be basking in the glory of its prized possessions of West Bengal and Odisha. In both States, the party was up against entrenched State-based parties. The clash between all-India and State-based parties has resulted in a setback for State-based parties. This will not only change the politics of these two States, but also serve as an indication of the newly shaping political competition elsewhere. The Congress (both in West Bengal and Odisha, besides Assam already) has been completely sidelined and the BJP has taken over as the main challenger to the State-based parties in both States.

Ideology sidelined

West Bengal presents an even more interesting picture than what appears on the face of it. The BJP has clearly served notice to the Trinamool Congress. A State known for its Left politics will now have a completely non-Left political framework. If in Kerala the Left has suffered because BJP sympathisers are supposed to have rallied behind the Congress, in West Bengal the BJP might have done well because of the support of Left voters. In their exasperation with Trinamool politics, many Left sympathisers are supposed to have rallied behind the BJP to ensure Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee’s defeat. These two possibilities indicate one thing (not adequately evidenced as of now, though our survey in both States points to that): in both States, the intensity of political competition has sidelined ideological considerations.

In Assam, most other States of the Northeast, and Odisha, there has for long been a clearly regional-regionalist flavour to politics. West Bengal, too, has been often described as having a more Bengali Left politics than merely Left politics. With its surge in the entire region, the BJP has not only weakened State-based parties, but done two more things. One, it has neutralised the political requirement that regional sentiment is expressed through a regional/State-based political vehicle. Two, it has audaciously embarked on the project of superimposing on regional narratives its Hindutva ideology as the master narrative, thus, for the first time, subordinating the regional. In its effort to represent regional interests and identities and at the same time tame the ‘regional’, the BJP appears to have taken upon itself a very hard task. How it balances its electoral ambitions in the region and its more deeply ideological ambitions here will decide the course of politics in the entire eastern region.

(Suhas Palshikar is the co-director of the Lokniti programme and chief editor of ‘Studies in Indian Politics’)

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