The Story ofthe BJP’s Rise
in the North-east
Authors: Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha
Publisher: Penguin Viking, 2017, pp 182
Book Review by: K. Raka Sudhakar Rao
Winning an election in a geographical behemoth like UP looks a child’s play compared to winning Assam in India’s North-east. Such are the complexities of Assam. Though just 126 seats, the voters in the Ujoni (upper) Assam have different set of priorities compared to Namoni (Lower region). The Barak Vally with its 14 seats thinks and behaves differently, at times diametrically opposed to the Assamese regions. A Rabha in Goalpara has little in common with the Mishing in Jorhat in terms of voting behaviour. Plains tribe Bodo has nothing in common with the hill tribes like Dimasa or Karbi when it comes to exercising his franchise. A tilt here or a nudge there can profoundly alter the poll outcome in this small but extremely important state. One only has to remember how Tarun Gogoi’s statement that Bengali Hindus should be treated as refugees and not foreigners has tilted the scales at the finish line and led to a Congress sweep in the Barak Valley during 2011 elections.
But, winning Assam is very important as much for emotional and sociological reasons as for political reasons for the BJP. It is not just winning another state. It is a gateway to seven-state North-east and a key to unlock the maze of complex regional dynamics there. Even geographically, Assam looks like the peduncle of a flower that holds six petals. For the BJP, a victory represents growing pan-India presence particularly in the wake of a post-2014 political geography faultline where East and South bucked the pro-BJP trend, as correctly pointed by Martin W Lewis in his Geocurrents Blog. A victory in Assam for the BJP has great salience for its nationalist and integrationist ideological moorings. More over, as Ram Madhav rightly points out in his forward, it was a much-needed morale boosting victory after two back-to-back defeats in Delhi and Bihar.
The Last Battle of Saraighat: The Story of the BJP’s Rise in the North-east, by Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha is an account of how BJP powered and propelled itself to wrest the biggest Congress bastion in the North-east. Both Rajat and Shubhrastha were political campaigners for the BJP and have seen the unfolding of the high-octane political drama from the closest possible quarter. They were partners in the process of how the BJP managed to crack the code of demographic riddle that Assam is and are eminently qualified to chronicle the story of how the last battle for Saraighat was won. And they did it with a seamless unfolding of narrative that is as lucid as it is insightful. They managed to tell the story of the “seemingly calm yet ever-churning” political waters of Mahabahu Brahmaputra.
Gleaning through the pages of this book is a personal déjà vu for this reviewer. During the 1985 elections, post the historic Assam Accord, this reviewer campaigned for the then state BJP president Praveen Baruah, in Jamuguri constituency. He was thrashed for merely carrying BJP pamphlets (Such were the pro-Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) passions then) and the state president ended up with just 432 votes. One vividly remembers majestic Rajmatha Vijayraje Scindia visiting more temples than voters and managing to address a motley crowd of 50 people in Nepali-dominated area in Tezpur constituency during her day-long electioneering toil (The Nepalis gathered just because Rajmatha spoke flawless Nepali). One also witnessed the strangest spectacle of redoubtable Atal Bihari Vajpayee speaking at the near-empty Judges Ground in Guwahati. From that pariah-hood to primacy in North East is a stirring saga of a scintillating journey for the BJP. Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha narrate with candour and commitment how this watershed moment became a reality.
Respecting the diversity and grooming of diverse local leadership, seamless blending of “Bharat Matha Ki Jai with Joi Ai Axom” and forging a rainbow coalition of political parties with diverse political aspirations without diluting the spirit of nationalism had helped the BJP register its first electoral victory in the North East.
One very significant aspect is the authors’ acknowledgement of the silent contribution made by nationalist organisations like the RSS. The authors wonder: In the monolithic narrative that dominated Assam’s contemporary politics, no one saw nationalism as a politically viable alternative or a rallying political thought. How did organisations like the RSS make a foray into the battered Assam in late 1940s? What helped the Sangh, an organization that did not have roots in Assam, gain a firm foothold in the multi-lingual, multi-ethic and multi-polar state? How did the organization make such an indelible imprint in Assam that while interpreting the assembly election results in 2016, analysts were forced to acknowledge its pervasive influence in galvanizing the support of the electorate?
They then go on to explain the growth and expansion of the RSS in Assam, which is vital to understand how BJP could get acceptance of Assamese voter. “Creating a counter narrative in an atmosphere of vitiated political and intellectual environment has been one of the greatest achievements of the Sangh. Even after losing so many swayamsevaks and pracharaks to violence, the RSS kept its firm resolve and commitment to achieve the goals of national integration,” say the authors (page 67).
It is interesting to note that even during the epic Mahabharata War, Pandavas forged rainbow coalitions in the North East in the run-up to Kurukshetra. Marriages with Hidimba, Uloopi, Prameela and others had helped the Pandavas muster strength to take on the mighty Kauravas in Kurukshetra. Under Ram Madhav’s leadership, the BJP managed to cobble up seemingly unlikely alliances. Spirited leadership of affable Sarbananda Sonowal and master strategist Himantha Biswa Sarma provided the much-needed spearhead in this battle of the ballot. Finally, the BJP did all the right things in the run-up to the poll battle and clinched that well-deserved victory.
The book is an important tool for all political science students to understand the art of politics and how a determined and visionary leadership can make seemingly impossible become possible.
- Raka Sudhakar Rao is a Hyderabad-based journalist and commentator. He has worked in the
North East from 1984 to 1995. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(This article is carried in the print edition of January-February 2018 issue of India Foundation Journal.)