Its absence was not for want of ambition because the BJP's principal strategist of those times, Pramod Mahajan, was as obsessed with displacing the Congress as the principal "national pole" of the big guns of today.
The times were different and the players pragmatically figured out that if the BJP was to intrude into Tamil Nadu or West Bengal, it made sense to pull out of the frontline and allow a more influential regional entity do the heavy lifting, which is when Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress first drew notice as a serious player as the NDA's emissaries, George Fernandes and Sudheendra Kulkarni, pandered to her whims.
Forget Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. The BJP has sedulously worked solo on the latter for some time, keen to obliterate its on-off association with Mamata. In Tamil Nadu, a state apart from most mainstream ones for being unreceptive to communal polarisation except in the parts bordering north Kerala, it's still groping for direction. But Shah and Modi are not quitters. One electoral reverse never dampens their push or clouds the larger picture they have placed before themselves. They see even smaller states and Union territories, such as Tripura and Puducherry, as ripe for the picking if the BJP were to supplant the Congress as the top-tier party.
So, when Shah, the BJP president, embarked on a countrywide peregrination, the choice of the term vistar (expansion) to contextualise his yatra was self-evident. He was set to expand the geographical vistas, co-opt alienated social communities such as the tribals and, most crucially, subsume the streams of sub-nationalism flowing in varying degrees through some of the states in the RSS-BJP's larger concept and blueprint of 'nationalism', manifesting itself through aggressive assertions from those Hindus who are directly aligned with the saffron fraternity or sympathetic to its ideology.
Sure, the duo's short-term interests were also at work. Strategically, Shah's yatra began a little before the next President of India was to be elected through an electoral college in which the states count significantly. The BJP had enough votes from the states in its kitty after it wrapped up election after election serially, but Modi and Shah's larger game-plan was obviously not just to ensure that the MPs and legislators in the states the BJP ruled stayed loyal. Rather, it was to set off a churn in the Opposition-controlled ones to enfeeble the Congress and potentially snuff out the incipient 'secular' front that was being cobbled together by the feisty Lalu Prasad and Mamata, backed by the Congress and the Left.
In the BJP's scheme, undermining the Opposition in states such as Bihar (Lalu's fief) or even tiny Tripura (the Left's last bastion) and Puduchery (now with the Congress) sufficiently reinforced the larger agenda of establishing its pre-eminence before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Lalu and the Left are direct allies of the Congress, while Mamata is a tactical partner. An indirect election such as the presidential poll is not the best way to flaunt a party's presumed dominance. But every party, ruling and Opposition, uses the joust to seat its nominee in the Rashtrapati Bhawan as a means to prove its strength.
Nothing nettles the BJP as sharply as the suggestion that at near-zero levels, the Congress still remains the only party whose flag is spotted in every village in the country. It's a long haul before the BJP can hope to register ubiquity of this scale. Hard-headed as they are, Modi and Shah know that winning an election is more than constituting booths, managing them skilfully and working out social equations. It's about evolving chemistry with the voters and funnelling their disenchantment with the incumbent ruler to their advantage.
Until that happens, the next best tactic is to manoeuvre the available political space ('fixing' in Indian parlance) and rearrange the pieces on the chess board. The Congress was adept at using this device and achieving the results in Indira Gandhi's heyday when her marksmen Makhan Lal Fotedar, RK Dhawan and Yashpal Kapoor zoomed in on the right targets, executed her briefs to the last letter and delivered on their mandate. The BJP attempted and pulled the same off expertly in Uttar Pradesh first in 1995, when it breached the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance, toppled Mulayam Singh Yadav as the chief minister and installed Mayawati with its support. The experiment was short-lived, but the BJP was bang on target by terminating a formidable political partnership for time to come.
The BJP hit the bull's eye in UP in 1998 when it split the Congress and the BSP after courting Mayawati and lodged itself in power.
On Mamata's heels for the past few years but unable to nail her in West Bengal thus far, Shah did the next best thing from his standpoint by spiriting away her legislators in Tripura, ostensibly to shore up the votes for the BJP's presidential candidate but, more importantly, get a foothold in the state.
Tripura votes in 2018. The BJP has made its presence felt in the tribal areas. In the urban pockets, it has set its sights on the government's working class whose wages remain frozen in the fourth pay commission of the 1980s. The BJP has promised to implement the seventh Central pay commission if voted to power. Helming Shah's Operation Red Fort, which alludes to Tripura as the CPM's only remaining fort, is Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who earned his spurs by swinging his own state, followed by Manipur, for the BJP. Sarma is resetting the political arithmetic by working on the votes held by the Congress and the Trinamool.
Ideology lies at the core of the BJP's Tripura project. As in Assam, the RSS and the BJP have themed the 'illegal infiltration' from Bangladesh as the gravest threat to the state, one half of whose population comprises the tribals, mostly Hindus, and the other half, Bengalis, again, largely Hindus. That the RSS was hammering away on 'infiltration' for years was evident from an article in its weekly, Organiser, back in May 2007. Titled 'Illegal infiltration, a serious threat to Tripura', it noted, "Infiltration is a great problem in Tripura which is the smallest north-eastern state.... Pakistan had [a] greedy glance at it during Independence. Immense pressure was mounted [on] the Queen, Kanchanprava Devi, to join Pakistan. But she honoured the wishes of the late Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya Bahadur, who favoured India and signed the agreement with New Delhi in 1949."
Tripura, with a population of 36,71,032, might not have figured on the radar of a party like the BJP that has to reclaim bigger states. That Shah spent three days of his yatra there marks a departure from the BJP of yore: big or small, for him and Modi, India counts as an aggregate of its parts, if the RSS's 'nationalist' project has to be nurtured.