How the BJP broke the Hindutva barrier in India’s Christian North East

How the BJP broke the Hindutva barrier in India’s Christian North East

P K Balachandran,
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BJP President Amit Shah campaigning in Meghalaya

What is remarkable about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s hat trick in the recent State Assembly elections in India’s North East is not that itsucceeded in throwing the Congress and the Communists out of power, but how it managed to break the seemingly strong religious barrier there.

Given its roller coaster drive to impose political Hindutwa and Hindu culture and practices on all Indians obliterating diversities, the BJP ought to have faced total rejection in the North Eastern States (barring Tripura), which are known for their passionate adherence to Christianity and commitment to preserving their unique cultural characteristics.

Nagaland

The BJP had fielded its candidates in 20 of the 60 seats in Nagaland, which is 90% Christian, and won 12 — its best show since 2003, when it won in seven seats. In 2013, it had got only one. Clearly, the BJP had made significant inroads despite its religious agenda.

“We can’t deny that the Hindutva movement in the country has become unprecedentedly strong and invasive in the past few years with the BJP, the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sanvggh (RSS), in power,” said the Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC) in a statement in February ahead of the elections.

The statement was issued by Zelhou Keyho, General Secretary of NBCC, the umbrella organization for over 1,500 Baptist churches in the State.

“Have you ever seriously questioned their intention? If you have not, do not be fooled,” the statement warned.

However, the BJP had increased its vote share in the State from 1.75% in 2013 to 14.4%, making Keyho admit that voters in Nagaland had ignored the NBCC’s statement.

“What has been done can’t be undone for the next five years. I will give the development a positive spin, and hope that wins by Christian candidates from the BJP would spur the party to raise its voice for minority communities outside Nagaland,” Keyho said eating humble pie.

The fact is, religion is not as much of a factor now in Nagaland as imagined. As an observer put it, in Nagaland, elections are not about development or perhaps not even about religion but about money to spend in elections and earning money through corruption after the elections.

Believe it or not, according to a study done by Youth Net, a youth organization in Nagaland, in the 2013 elections, candidates spent INR. 9370 million (US$ 144 million) to woo voters! To put that into perspective, the State’s total tax and non-tax revenue projected in the 2017-2018 would be less at INR 7960 million (US$ 122 million)! Naga politician openly admit that they need money to fight elections and make money after winning elections.

In Nagaland, having the support of local tribal personalities is very important for winning elections. The BJP wooed the most prominent ones. And both the local parties, the Nagaland People’s Front (NPF) and Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) were coopted as allies.

The newly-formed NDPP, won 17 seats in the 60-member House. The Nagaland Peoples’ Front (NPF) was the single largest party in the House with 27 seats. But with the support of the Janata Dal (United)’s one member, the NDPP with BJP is expected to form a government.

Meghalaya

In Meghalaya, where Christians make 75% of the population, the Narendra Modi government’s announcement of anINR 700 million (US$ 10.7 million) package to develop places of worship had been rejected by two major church organizations.

On Saturday, the saffron party, which contested 47 seats in Meghalaya, won only two–its best performance ever in the state. But it increased its vote share from 1.27% in 2013 to 9.6% this time.

However, the small tally of two seats and the Congress’ emerging as the single largest party did not make the BJP take the situation lying down. Fired with the passion to rid the North East of the Congress, the BJP got Conrad Sangma’s National People’s Party (NPP) to tie up with other tribal parties like the UDP, HSPDP and the PDF and make a bid for power with 34 MLAs in the 60-member House to prevent Congress from forming the government although it was the single largest party. The BJP would be a part of the new coalition government led by Conrad Sangma.

In contrast, the Congress failed to rope in allies just as the CPI(M) failed to do so in Tripura.

Tripura

Tripura is a different kettle of fish. It is a Hindu majority State but is divided into Hindu Bengali migrants (mostly from Bangladesh) and local tribal Tripuris who are also Hindus. The BJP won the Hindu Bengalis using the Hindutva card and the tribals by encouraging them to unite and fight the Bengali-dominated CPI(M).

The CPI (M) had become a soft target thanks to anti-incumbency. It had got worn out by its long tenure in office. In fact, anti-incumbency was a major factor in this just concluded polls.

One of the reasons for the success of the BJP and the failure of the Congress and CPI(M) lies in history. In the North Eastern States, the BJP has no big baggage to carry as it is a new entrant. But the Congress and the CPI(M) havea big baggage, which is a long period of “incumbency”.

In Tripura, time had run out for the CPI (M) and its long serving Chief Minister Manik Sarkar. Though the CPI(M) had rid the State of insurgencies, it had not solved the problems of the modern generation.

Roughly 30% of Tripura’s population is between 15 and 29, but the State has one of the highest unemployment rates in India. Tripura youth fell for Modi’s promise of “HIRA” or “diamond” comprising “Highways, I-ways (internet), Railways and Airways.” He promised one job per family. He also promised a huge hike in salaries of State government employees.

The Congress-led Meghalaya United Alliance (MUA) government headed by Mukul Sangma had an incumbency issue. The Chief Minister was accused of running a Presidential form of government keeping with him 18 portfolios and taking arbitrary decisions. Many rebelled against this and these included Rowell Lyngdoh (Deputy Chief Minister and legislator since 1983), Prestone Tynsong (a three-term legislator), Sniawbhalang Dhar, Ngaitlang Dhar, and Coming one Ymbon who helped bankroll the Congress in the last elections.

While the BJP was able to form brazen alliances, the Congress and CPI (M) were not innovative enough. Having been top dogs, they wanted to be top dogs all the time. They felt compelled to safeguard their long established “primacy” in every election and government formation. Therefore, they were not amenable to compromise with other parties to the latter’s satisfaction.

Architects of BJP’s Victory

The BJP would not have registered such stunning success if it did not have good poll managers. The architects of the BJP’s successful electoral and post electoral management are its President Amit Shah and its National General Secretary Ram Madhav, whose innovative thinking and bold moves helped the party reach out to local tribal groups even though they are mostly Christian.

The duo was able to rid the local Christian majorities of fears that the BJP, being a Hindu nationalist party, would obliterate the uniqueness of the local tribes which are not only non-Hindu but culturally very different from the rest of the Indian population.

They were able to overcome the high decibel anti-BJP and anti-Hindutva propaganda by successfully propagating the value of achieving economic development through a cooperative relationship with the BJP-led Central government in New Delhi. The development cooperation line struck a chord with the educated youth looking for employment and modern facilities.

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