The coverage of the election results in the three states of Northeast India shows a curious fixation with only half the story. It has largely remained a feel good narrative of how the BJP is changing the political discourse in the Northeast irrevocably. Strangely, no one seems to be asking, if and in what manner, the Northeast will end up changing the political narrative of the BJP. It still leaves open the question what sort of trade-offs the BJP will be prepared to make if it wants to consolidate its initial success. It is this untold other half of the story that is fundamental to making sense of the post-elections political landscape.
But in the age of credulity that appears to have taken hold, change appears to be a one-way street with the Northeast cast as a passive receiver, lacking agency as it were. Some of this has to do with the caricatures that project the border region as an isolated, landlocked periphery. Its echoes can be heard in the new zeal to ‘mainstream the Northeast’ into the national fold. The language of mainstreaming is no chance choice though. It is a heady account that seeks to make the periphery intelligible to a new powerful class of stakeholders interested in ‘developing’ it. It could turn out to be an extremely handy tool wielded by the Centre to homogenise an extremely diverse region and flatten out messy differences that do not fit.
But then that again is also only half the story. While the spiel of mainstreaming the Northeast is declared loud and clear, the fact that it happens to be the mainstream Hindu fold is spoken in sotto voce. By the looks of it, we could be in for a clash of nationalisms in-the-making as the BJP’s majoritarian, homogenising state-building impulses meet the smaller nationalisms of the region. This is bound to be an uneasy and unfamiliar terrain for the national party. Conflicting ethno-visions in the Northeast have resulted in a highly divisive region where groups have fought at multiple fronts- against the state, against ‘outsiders’ and frequently against one another. The contradictions these will entail for the BJP’s ideological identity are not going anywhere anytime soon. If the party’s election strategy in the Northeast is anything to go by, while the form appears to be catering to diversity in rhetoric, its core message remains firmly assimilationist. The depictions of Bharat Mata in Debbarma-tribal attire during the Tripura election campaigns may not be so much a tactical electoral gimmick as in keeping with its long-term agenda of ‘Hinduising’ the tribals. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief, Mohan Bhagwat’s definition of the Indian is telling in this regard. According to him, ‘Everyone living in India is a Hindu’ irrespective of differences in religion, culture and language. It is perhaps ironic that the national party has to soft pedal the link between religion and politics in a region where the intersections between the two run deep. So while the party’s political-in-charge for the Northeast Ram Madhav praised early Christian missionaries for ‘their commendable job in the mission field’, the RSS for its part has consciously tried to downplay its Hindutva image. One of its functionaries vouchsafed, ‘All are human beings after all. Religion has come much later’. But can identity and ideology share this awkward embrace for long?
Winning the optics test is again only half the story. What sort of a federal bargain would the BJP be willing to strike? This could be the key institutional litmus test for the party, more so given the shared legacy of past grievances in the region. This has a great deal to do with the manner of the functioning of asymmetrical federalism, where departures from the federal design have been more the norm than the exception. The absence of viable domestic sources of revenue generation has considerably compromised local initiative and in the long run, any prospects for meaningful autonomy. The 2018 budget provided for only a modest increase of Rs. 230 crore in the budget for the Ministry for the Development of the North Eastern Region (MDoNER). Paradoxically, while the North East Council (NEC), the nodal agency designated for steering the economic and social development of the eight states of the Northeast has been starved of funds, Rs 15,000 crore of the Non-Lapsable Pool of Central Resources (the mandatory 10 per cent of the budgets of all central ministries), remains unspent Institutional mechanisms need to be devised to redress such anomalies and channelise these funds to relevant development agencies in the region. The intractable nature of resource conflicts between the Centre and the state governments can be seen in the 2016 constitutional dispute between Nagaland and the Centre. The Centre contested Nagaland’s claim that Article 371 (A) of the Indian Constitution conferred upon it the right to develop its natural gas reserves. These institutional gridlocks have permitted few opportunity structures for learning and adaptation among key actors. Such democratic deficits have bred a festering anger and resentment in the popular imagination towards what is perceived as an unresponsive and indifferent Centre. Against this backdrop, one wonders how much political capital the party can hope to reap from the 2015 framework agreement with the NSCN (IM) if it does not lift the veil of secrecy from the ‘hidden contents’ of the deal. The opacity surrounding it has already raised serious concerns and speculation in Manipur and Assam despite assurances by the Centre that the territorial integrity of states would not be altered.
Being the political newcomer in the region that it is, could the BJP thus find itself caught between a rock and a hard place? Delhi’s ‘new’ reading of borders as bridges for sure speaks a comfortable cosmopolitan language. But if it remains fixated on only half the story, could it end up building half bridges, or worse still, burning them?
(The writer is Associate Professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)