In January 1966, after decades of fighting for a separate territory for her Zeliangrong people, Naga leader Rani Gaidinliu emerged from her jungle hideout and surrendered to the government of India.
Two weeks later she travelled to state capital Kohima and later that month, met prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, reiterating her demand for a separate unit within the Union of India, breaking away from secessionist demands by a large chunk of the Naga movement and underlining her contribution to India's freedom movement. Yet, her ambivalence towards Christianity and her perceived closeness to New Delhi made her a controversial figure in her home state, and she was largely relegated to obscurity for the better part of 50 years.
Until 2015. That year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the birth centenary celebrations of the leader he called Rani Maa, making public his government's push in the North-East and building on the goodwill generated by his three-day tour to the region in the winter of 2014. The scholar Arkotong Longkumer notes that this was not a disjointed outreach, but a calibrated strategy that thrust a figure that had long endured in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's (RSS) imagination of the North-East into the political limelight, attempting to springboard the Sangh's grassroots work into electoral heft in a region where the BJP had little footprint on the ground, and even less ideological traction.
In many ways, this episode encapsulated the BJP's gameplan in the North-East, one that first came to fruition in 2018 - with a clear win over the formidable Left in Tripura, the power-grab in Manipur, and the formation of alliances in Meghalaya and Nagaland . The same plan marked its moment of consolidation in 2023, where despite significant local problems and anti-incumbency, it managed to retain its hold over these states. This plan pivoted on: a decision to invest more political capital than any previous national administration in states with little national electoral heft; the presence and popularity of the PM; ideological flexibility and political pragmatism : and the co-option of leaders with strong local following. In a region whose relationship with the party in power at the Centre has often been transactional - for historical reasons of financial, developmental and infrastructural weaknesses - the party's rhetoric of a double-engine government resonated, as did its push to maximise the reach of its welfare schemes and pay attention to issues and fault lines that previous incumbents (such as the Left in Tripura) had ignored.
Still, even in the consolidation, there were signs that couldn't be ignored.
In Tripura, the BJP was able to use its tested strategy of changing the chief minister to offset some of the anti-incumbency, but a spirited show by a new entrant, the TIPRA Motha party, decimated its ally IPFT in tribal-dominated seats (the coalition had swept these 20 constituencies in 2018) .
In Meghalaya, the BJP and the National People's Party broke their coalition and the former even campaigned on an anti-incumbency plank, but chief minister Conrad Sangma not only managed to hold onto his areas of influence but also expanded his party's base beyond the Khasi hills to the Garo and Jaintia regions (the two allies united again after the results were declared).
And despite running an opposition-less government in Nagaland, the victory of the NDPP-BJP alliance was not as impressive as predicted.
But it would be a mistake to read this mandate as anything but an endorsement of the remarkable political transformation in this diverse and dynamic region, where, outside Assam, the BJP didn't even have a presence at the municipality level not too long ago, and where it now controls five state governments.
This election was different from 2018, in that the BJP was fighting from an incumbent position in all three states. To cement its gains, therefore, it did three things.
One, it pivoted from an anti-incumbency narrative in 2018 to one focussed on welfare and governance. This meant maximising the welfare net and constant connection of every beneficiary with the PM - akin to its labharathi strategy in Uttar Pradesh - but also constantly contrasting it with the approach of previous governments that faced genuine issues of corruption, lethargy and development paralysis. It married this with a decision to drop the hardline approach that sometimes characterises its heartland campaign, and display flexibility in not only wooing lukewarm constituents but also preventing counter-mobilisation. It didn't push polarising themes, and attempted to stay away from engaging with fiery issues until pushed.
Two, it continued the pattern of stitching up astute alliances that began in 2018, courtesy Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma. Once it was unthinkable that a party obsessed with national integration could join hands with an outfit such as the IPFT, but the BJP not only retained most of its alliances but also kept open channels with allies that appeared disgruntled, such as the NPP. This strategy seems to have worked in Meghalaya, where the NPP was only too happy to ally with the BJP (again), after the results were announced. And three, it didn't shy away from investing political capital. The PM's 50-odd visits to the region since taking charge, or the presence of a Union minister every fortnight meant that the spotlight was kept on the North-East; the party's formidable muscle of finance and data-based planning also helped.
At the broad level, the results showed that local issues, smart leaders and energetic campaigns still mattered, no matter how formidable an opponent.
For the BJP, the results bode well for 2024. The party is now the largest in the North-East and will likely snag a large chunk of the region's 25 Lok Sabha seats come 2024. But more importantly, its victories in areas dominated by minorities - 88% of Nagaland and 75% of Meghalaya is Christian - and tribespeople lend genuine credence to its claim of being an inclusive, pan-India party. This is not just crucial as a political narrative but also as the culmination of an ideological project - after all, the North-East was a key playground of the Sangh, a place where it built schools and shakas to propagate its views on nationalism and faith, and which occupied a key position in its imagination of Akhand Bharat. As is true in some other provinces, electoral success came at the cost of some ideological compromise.
For the rest, they don't. The results showed that the Congress has some more thinking to do on its strategy of forging multiple alliances - after Bengal, the Left tie-up failed in Tripura - and this means it will likely face problems in emerging as the nucleus of an opposition formation. They also showed that new players may emerge in a region all the time (the TIPRA Motha in Tripura, for instance) . But even with a cogent strategy and base, it will take a lot for these players to make a mark in national elections.
The BJP has passed the first test of 2023, and well. Tougher challenges loom.