BJP's Meghalaya Results Prove That the Development Card Doesn't Always Work When Hindutva Is in Play

Banking on development as a poll plank, BJP has increasingly made inroads into the Northeast. But in Meghalaya, Hindutva politics upset its chances.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures while addressing a BJP rally dressed in traditional Khasi tribe attire and Garo tribe headgear in Shillong. Credit: File photo

New Delhi: Sometime in 1990 in Guwahati, an older aunt from the extended family woke up earlier than usual.

A quick bath, a hurried trip to the family temple, armed with a red bindi on the forehead, sindoor on the parting of her hair, donning a pat mekhela chador, she rushed out to join a bunch of women waiting in a van in front of her house.

“Where to, Jethai?” I remembered asking her.

Well, I could connect better to her answer given that day.

Jethai and her friends were going to contribute one brick each for the construction of a Ram temple in faraway Ayodhya, a dusty town in Uttar Pradesh whom none from my family – extended or close – had ever visited. The contribution of bricks was to coincide with the country-wide padyatra led by the then BJP president L.K. Advani.

Much later, I recall going through an article on Advani’s padyatra leading to the rise of the BJP in the country, published in a well-known New Delhi-based magazine. Among other things, it related that when Advani spoke of ‘Lord Hanuman’ in a public speech in Assam, the people were wondering whom was he was referring to since they ‘knew Hanuman as the monkey king, not a god’.

So naturally then, Jethai and her friends were dismissed by others as aberrations; at best, religious.

Decades later, tonnes of building material still awaits the construction of that Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and who knows Jethai’s brick may also be a part of that heap – a precious show of support dispatched from peripheral Northeast.

Looking back, it is not difficult to decipher that those women – however few they might have been then – were mobilised by the RSS to drum up support for the Ram Mandir drive in Assam. The majority population might have treated it as an aberration then, but it was the beginning of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) making inroads into Assamese middle-class.

Over the decades, the state saw the steady rise of the RSS, first with the help of the Hindi-speaking population and then percolating its reach slowly into the small Assamese Brahmin community, the Vaishnavs and the tribals through a number of affiliated organisations working in diverse sectors.

This spread of the RSS in the state certainly facilitated the formation of the first-ever elected government of its political wing, the BJP, in the Northeast in mid-2016. (The Gegong Apang led BJP government in Arunachal Pradesh in 2003 was formed after a breakaway group merged into it, not elected as BJP candidates).

Assam might have been a part of the Ram Mandir drive in the 1990s, however little it was, but it will be incorrect to say that hardcore Hindutva (mobilisation of Hindus hinged on the mandir politics seen in Uttar Pradesh and other parts) helped BJP build itself in the state and pull off that impressive victory.

Rather, what did it in Assam for the BJP was smart engineering of a soft version of Hindutva, a tailor-made one, presented to the majority Khilonjia (indigenous) population after sugarcoating it with the strong sentiments of jatiotabad (Assamese identity) hinged on ‘jati, mati, bheti’. It helped freshen up old apprehensions that unless one electorally unites, unless all “indigenous” forces come together, one is set to lose the land, the home, the hearth, to “illegal immigrants” – meaning mainly the Bengali speaking Muslim population of East Bengal origin. It helped BJP garner votes even from the Assamese Muslims, a small community which often complains of unequal distribution of welfare funds in comparison to the Bengali-speaking Muslims as they comprise the bigger chunk of the state’s minority population.

Not that BJP completely discarded its Hindutva politics in the state in the run-up to the 2016 polls but it did it in an understated manner. It mobilised the Bengali-speaking Hindu population in the Barak Valley with the promise of giving citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis residing in Assam and elsewhere stating “persecution” of Hindus in Muslim majority Bangladesh as the reason. Being a sensitive issue among the majority Assamese population (as it violates the Assam accord of 1985), the party underplayed it in the Brahmaputra valley. This promise of citizenship did deliver some crucial seats to the BJP in the Barak Valley to help total their numbers at 61 in the 126-member assembly. Two short of the majority mark without the allies.

This past March 3, when BJP achieved its next big electoral victory in the Northeast, Tripura, the promise of giving citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis residing in that state bordering Bangladesh did seem to have some resonance among the majority Bengali population but what pulled off the impressive victory was again the RSS’s extraordinary organisational skills put to impressive use by RSS-BJP leader Sunil Deodhar, but importantly, not by employing hardcore Hindutva politics.

‘Development, development, development’

Rather, what delivered the formidable victory was what Prime Minister Narendra Modi first spelt out for those in Assam not affected by the fear of being swamped by “illegal immigrants” – Acche din delivered through development.

Speaking at an election rally in the Bodo heartland, Kokrajhar, in the run-up to the Assam polls, Modi had said, “I have a three-point programme. One, development, two, development, three, development”.

If it was ‘three Ds’ of Modi that helped BJP’s aide – the Bodo People’s Front (BPF) – to victory and sent out a positive image of BJP to the voters, it was ‘three Ts’ in Tripura – trade, tourism and training of youth – again coming from him, at an election rally in Sonamura, which clearly underlined the message to the voters of an under-developed, poor state that it would try and better their lives. This certainly helped BJP romp home with an impressive harvest of 43 (together with ally Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura) first ever in the 60-constituency state.

BJP national leaders like Ram Madhav, overseeing the region, have always maintained that the party operates “differently” in the Northeast, but these rounds of assembly polls in the three north-eastern states saw BJP going the farthest possible point from its hardcore Hindutva ideology it is usually identified in the rest of India. Modi, speaking at an election rally in Phulbari in Meghalaya on February 23, said, “We (BJP) don’t believe in the politics of religion, caste.”

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It might have been said particularly keeping in mind the party’s prospects in the two Christian majority states (Nagaland and Meghalaya) where for the first time, religious freedom was used as a poll plank by its opponents. In the process though, the BJP presented to the electorate – in clear terms for the first time through the prime minister – that it is ready to change its mainstream India politics to adjust to the north eastern sentiments.

In return, what it achieved was, to a large extent, was advantage BJP in the region. Look at the March 3 results. In Tripura, where it set aside its Hindutva politics to run a watertight campaign hinged on the aspirations of the voters through the dream of seeing a day when the youth would have the option of going for a private job than depending solely on the state government for employment, and the huge chunk of government employees hoping for ‘achhe din’ with a bigger pay packet, it straightaway sat on the saddle with 43% vote share from a mere 0.54% in 2013 elections.

It also stormed into the tribal areas, considered a stronghold of the opponent CPI(M) being its birthplace in the state, by promising development as a balm to address the increasingly lop-sided power equations between the indigenous population and the migrant Bengalis. Besides, bringing in leaders from other parties and fielding them as BJP candidates, it helped dilute the hardcore Hindutva image further.

Among other things, what the BJP pushed in the state to strengthen itself in the last two-and-a-half years was distributing to people in trains and elsewhere booklets in local languages describing various development and welfare schemes of the BJP government at the Centre through its Modi Doot Yojana. In other words, promoting development.

In Nagaland too, it is this development agenda, albeit presented in a veiled manner, that helped BJP achieve, to a great extent, its best electoral performance till date in the north eastern state. It was the promise of delivering “as soon as possible after the elections” the much-awaited Naga Accord, which, in turn, would bring development and progress to the people of the state. Improving its best show till now (7 seats in the 2008 elections), it bagged 12 seats.

What helped it grow in the state in a manner not seen before was also a clever electoral strategy. Even though it has been a part of the state government since 2003 being the junior partner of the Naga people’s Front (NPF), it has never been able to enter into a seat sharing arrangement with the regional player. In the process, it continued to have limited appeal. By having seat sharing arrangement with the new player, the National Democratic progressive Party (NDPP), an offshoot of the NPF, it could have what it always preferred – 20 of the 60 seats where it had the advantage of pocketing votes of those in support of a local player.

Another strategic move was to contest 8 of the 20 seats in the four districts of the state where Eastern Nagaland People’s Organisation (ENPO), an apex body of six Naga tribes, holds sway. The Modi government has been supportive of the ENPO’s longstanding demand for a separate Frontier State comprising the four districts of Mon, Tuensang, Khipire and Longleng. While using ENPO’s support to gain seats, it also brought in its biggest star campaigner, Modi, to Tuensang to address a rally promising development. On March 3, it won four of the eight seats against one seat in the last polls.

This consolidated number has helped BJP play a prominent role to form a government with NDPP. It would certainly be in a more commanding position in the new government than in the earlier NPF governments. To arrive at the magic figure of 31, NDPP-BJP combine is taking support from the Janata Dal (United) and one independent candidate. Chief ministerial candidate Neiphu Rio is already talking about delivering the Naga Accord “by August 10”.

The rising surge of the BJP employing the development card against its Hindutva politics, however, met with a strong road block in Meghalaya. Though, like other northeastern states, it brought in development and good governance as its poll planks, it was finally its hardcore Hindutva politics in mainstream India that caught up with it to offset its prospects.

Like it did in Assam to topple the 15-year-old Congress government with the help of regional players, the BJP was readying a similar formula in Meghalaya to take down the 10-year-old Mukul Sangma government. The party’s North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) partners National People’s Party (NPP) and United Democratic Party (UDP) were already making the required noises about it, with UDP even going to the extent of saying that it might enter into a pre-poll alliance with the BJP. As per the plan, MLAs from other parties were being brought in keeping winnability in mind.

Even though RSS had made considerable inroads into the Jaintia hills and parts of the Khasi Hills to help BJP score particularly in those areas but it was not enough to pull off a BJP government in Meghalaya without the support of the regional players and MLAs from other parties who could win them seats.

However, what upset the plan was the unexpected turn of things triggered by extreme Hindutva politics by groups seen close to the BJP in rest of India, particularly the attacks on churches in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, violence by cow vigilante groups in various states controlled by the party, besides a notification of the Modi government to regulate the slaughter of cows. Considering that beef is one of the main meats consumed in Meghalaya, it at once set off alarm bells.

Surprisingly, the party leadership in charge of the state did too little too late to address those apprehensions. Some cadres began leaving the party and continued doing so till a few ays were left for the February 27 polling. The party brought in a Christian face, K.J. Alphons, offered funds for refurbishing of churches besides Modi claiming his party doesn’t play politics over religion, but it was too late by then. The nail on the coffin was certainly the denial of visa to the international head of the Baptist Church who was invited to attend the celebrations for 150 years of Christianity in the Garo Hills. On March 3, with two seats, it couldn’t better its own record in the state – winning three seats in the 1998 polls.

NEDA convenor Himanta Biswa Sarma is now in Shillong trying to stitch up a NEDA government in the state as the last resort. As per reports coming from Shillong, NEDA partner NPP will lead a government with support from UDP, Progressive Democratic Front (PDF) and Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP) with NPP president Conrad Sangma as the chief minister.

Certainly, what happened in Meghalaya hands out an important message to the BJP – that it can claim the space of the Congress as a national player vis-à-vis the regional parties in the Northeast only if it keeps a constant watch over its hardcore Hindutva politics in mainstream India. That discarding its ‘Ram mandir’ politics, once tested in Assam, is not, anymore, enough in a technologically linked world.

Perhaps Prime Minister Modi’s latest act to stop his speech on the Northeast victory midway in New Delhi for azaan is the beginning.