Misread signs

They trudged for miles, some of them overnight, to Sonamura and Kailashahar in Tripura to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month, barely 10 days before the recently-concluded assembly elections. The huge turnout should have alerted the Left Front, in power since 1993 and basking in complacent confidence that the mandate would go in its  favour . After the polls, on the eve of Holi, another indicator flashed: the saffron gulal sold out, while there were few takers for the red powder.

  • Published 16.03.18
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They trudged for miles, some of them overnight, to Sonamura and Kailashahar in Tripura to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month, barely 10 days before the recently-concluded assembly elections. The huge turnout should have alerted the Left Front, in power since 1993 and basking in complacent confidence that the mandate would go in its favour. After the polls, on the eve of Holi, another indicator flashed: the saffron gulal sold out, while there were few takers for the red powder.

Whether in the autorickshaws of Agartala or in interior Mandai, there were hushed whispers that the Bharatiya Janata Party's campaign catchline, ' Chalo paltai (let's bring about change)', was about to fructify. Veteran communists, however, continued to scoff at the saffron challenge. They pointed to the visit of the BJP president, Amit Shah, to the state on the eve of the Lok Sabha polls of 2014, when his party rallies were scantily attended. Brinda Karat told me at the Communist Party of India (Marxist) headquarters that the BJP campaigners would not know where to hide their faces when the results were announced.

On March 3, when the knell sounded for the red bastion, the BJP tom-tommed its ideological victory. Although the party wrested power in all the three northeastern states - Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland - dethroning the communists in possibly the first direct confrontation between the Left and the Right was avowedly their moment of glory.

Last bastion

Few envisaged that a cadre-based party could upstage another deeply entrenched one in such a short time. Modi's appeal and Shah's persistence led to the decimation of the Left and grabbed the attention of the national media like never before. Tiny Tripura was catapulted into the limelight. The Congress, reduced to zero in Tripura, basked in the belief that it would retain Meghalaya and the Church would resist the saffron surge in Nagaland. With a little more effort, the party would have read the voter pulse accurately and perhaps managed to hold on to Meghalaya, where, despite emerging as the single largest party, it looked on helplessly as the BJP, with only two seats, managed to cobble together a coalition with the National People's Party. Rahul Gandhi's brief roadshow was a pathetic shadow of the robust BJP campaign, which saw several leaders, right from the prime minister, reaching out to the electorate.

In Shillong, I watched the Congress president's blink-and-miss apology for a campaign at the busy city centre, Khyndai Lad, which had been cordoned off. On the surface it appeared to be a good crowd; actually there were more stranded pedestrians than supporters. A little enterprise by national leaders would have saved the day for the party, given that even Congress debutants like George Lyngdoh defeated the NPP's Ngaitlang Dhar - the richest candidate, flaunting his Rs 290 crore assets.

In Nagaland, the BJP took advantage of local politics, dumping its ally, the Naga People's Front, to befriend the former MP and current chief minister, Neiphiu Rio, who launched the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party. Although the NPF emerged as the single largest party, the pre-poll coalition partners went on to form the new government. The NPF did try to mend fences once the results were declared, but the BJP rebuffed these overtures. In its quest for reflected glory, the NPF then offered support to the ruling dispensation, thereby rendering Nagaland devoid of any Opposition, a move that can spell doom in a democracy.

It is now the turn of the Christian-dominated state of Mizoram to dust the cobwebs from its poll bugle. With elections in the last remaining Congress fortress in the Northeast slated for this year, can the bamboo staves of the Cheraw dancers put a spoke in the wheel of the BJP's seemingly unstoppable juggernaut?

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