Newsmaker: Man of the moment

Young Bharatiya Janata Party leader Biplab Kumar Deb was sworn in as the chief minister of Tripura on Friday in the presence of a galaxy of leaders led by prime minister Narendra Modi. The presence of the entire BJP top brass at the swearing in ceremony showcased the significance of the event. Prime minister Modi termed the Tripura election verdict as a milestone in Indian politics.

The significance of BJP’s victory does not lie in the uprooting of the deeply entrenched CPI (M) government in the state. What the victory means is that the BJP has cemented its position in the North-East, a phenomenon that started only a few years ago first with the party’s impressive performance in 2014 Lok Sabha polls and then in the assembly elections.

Master strategist
The man who opened a saffron route to the North-East was Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is leading the BJP charge in Assam, the biggest of the North-East’s seven sisters. After the party’s impressive performance in Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya, Sarma has set his eyes on Prime Minister Modi’s return to power in 2019. He is ensuring that the phenomenon of a Congress-free North-East finally becomes a reality.

There are many stories about him, the manner in which he can operate behind the scenes and work the ropes to have his way. This was on view in Nagaland recently where with public statements and back channel works, he got incumbent chief minister TR Zeliang to resign and

avoid a political crisis. Small wonder then that he is the BJP’s chief strategist in the region.

In Tripura, as in other state polls, he was given a free hand by the party brass. That enabled him to sew up an alliance with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), despite accusations that the BJP was aligning with separatists. It turned out to be a masterstroke as it helped the alliance to corner votes of tribals, who had felt marginalised during the last few years of Manik Sarkar’s chief ministership.

Together with Sikkim, the seven North-Eastern states send 25 MPs to the Lok Sabha. In 2014, the BJP won 8 out of 14 seats in Assam and one in Arunachal Pradesh, taking its tally in the region to 9. The Congress patty was closely behind, winning 8 seats in the region.

The party sees a dramatically altered scenario for 2019. Barring Mizoram, all the states have fallen in the kitty of the BJP or its allies. Much of the onus for expanding the BJP’s base is on Sarma as Assam has the major chunk of seats in the region. He intends to ensure that the BJP takes its tally to double digits in 2019.

The former Congressman is working full-time to decimate the Congress party in the North-East. Nursing an insult at the hands of Rahul Gandhi, Sarma took his revenge. His desertion from the Congress was followed by the systematic erosion of the party. The BJP leader minces no wards while highlighting what he believes is the political immaturity of Rahul Gandhi. In his own words, the Congress made him a nationalist – the former student leader has become the most visible face of the BJP in the region.

Breaking new ground

The RSS had been trying to make inroads into the North-East for several years. But its efforts had not led to major political successes. What RSS could not achieve for the BJP, Sarma did. He is bringing state after state under the BJP flag in the region, as if it were a mission. Being the right hand man of former Congress chief minister Tarun Gagoi, he knows the ways of the grand old party. He is using the same tactics to spread the wings of the BJP.

After Assam, he ensured the BJP formed governments in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. The victory in Tripura is the brightest jewel in his crown. The tactics were simple. He usurped the Congress organisation and brought it under the BJP fold. He got full support from the BJP’s national leadership. Top party functionaries like Ram Madhav were at the helm of affairs to make sure the strategy worked. If the BJP wins 20 out of 25 seats in the region in 2019, it will be a major boost to the party. Prime minister Modi has ensured that the North-East remains the focus. He has channelled funds and made sure that Union ministers take up the development of the area seriously. The BJP’s flag is flying high in the region and is likely to stay that way. And in making that happen, Sarma has had a big hand.

Gautam Datt