Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, centre, gestures as he is welcomed by his party members upon arriving for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parliamentary meeting in New Delhi on March 6. (Photo by Money Sharma/AFP)
The power of symbolism matters the most in politics. It is not without good reason that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi received a grand welcome from his party members in parliament and top leaders as he arrived for the second half of a budget session on March 5.
Modi was greeted with traditional jackets and stoles made by indigenous people in northeastern states. They were given to all lawmakers and federal ministers from Modi's pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who attended the session wearing them.
The point was to drive home the message that the BJP has been able to make a significant impact among tribal voters, mostly Christians, in the northeastern region in the just-concluded elections in three states.
"BJP leaders are upbeat about these election results as they believe this will help them in future elections in states like Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh later this year. This lays a good foundation for Modi's party for the 2019 general elections," political observer Ratnadeep Gupta told ucanews.com.
The results of state elections in the Christian-dominated states of Nagaland and Meghalaya, as well as in the communist stronghold of Tripura on March 3, showed how the BJP is making considerable gains in these areas.
Modi gestures as he is garlanded by BJP leaders during the state election results of three northeast states at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi on March 3. (Photo by Sajjad Hussain/AFP)
This is especially the case among indigenous people, among whom the party has had a negligible presence so far.
In Tripura, the BJP and its allies won 43 seats in the 60-seat house in a historical victory that unseated the communists after 25 years of uninterrupted rule.
In Nagaland, the BJP-led coalition won 31 seats with the BJP alone claiming 12 to set a new precedent in India's tribal heartland. The BJP alliance is staking a claim to form the next government.
It also aims to be part of the ruling authority in Catholic-dominated Meghalaya state despite having only won two seats in the 59-seat house.
Yet it has managed to cobble together a formidable alliance by teaming up with a local party that won 19 seats and three other parties to unseat its main rival, the Congress Party.
The latter has emerged as the single largest party, wining 21 seats but falling 10 short of a simple majority.
In effect, the BJP will control governments in all three states that have gone to the polls. The party's jubilation was well articulated by party leader and federal law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.
"In spite of a very vicious campaign against the BJP among the Christian minorities, it has won 12 seats" in Nagaland, he said.
Indian supporters of the BJP celebrate at a rally following state election victories, outside the BJP headquarters in New Delhi on March 3. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party on March 3 recorded a spectacular victory in Tripura state and a strong showing elsewhere in the country's northeast region ahead of the national election in 2019. (Photo by Sajjad Hussain/AFP)
The BJP claimed 15 percent of the polled votes in Nagaland, where Christians form 89 percent of the state's two million people, showing substantial Christian support for the party.
Prasad said the results in Tripura, where the BJP trounced the communists, will "resonate" in the only other communist-ruled state of Kerala, where Christians account for 20 percent of its 30-million population.
"A mandate in the northeast would mark a significant and tectonic shift in the politics of India," the BJP leader said.
Over the years, leaders of religious minority groups and political detractors have accused the BJP of pursuing anti-Christian and anti-Muslim politics. The party has also been accused of ignoring ethnic minorities.
But the latest results of those states where tribal Christians are dominant is making a strong case for the BJP to obliterate such allegations.
A visit to remote villages of those states in the run-up to the elections proved that local people were looking for change.
Surneu Halam, a mother of three, refused to mince her words about the situation in Tripura.
"The Hindu slant of the BJP has been an issue. But if Christianity could survive under communist rule it can survive under the BJP and Narendra Modi," she said.
In Nagaland, prominent Christian groups cautioned voters against the BJP but their efforts may have landed on deaf ears.
Naga tribesmen dance during a festival at the Naga heritage village of Kisama in the northeastern state of Nagaland in this Dec. 2, 2017 file photo. The BJP registered a shocking victory during recent polls in the tribal region. (Photo by Caisii Mao/AFP)
In the lead-up to the polls, the Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC) issued a statement reminding Christians of the threat posed by the BJP's ideology, which supports the creation of a Hindu-only nation.
Yet somehow the party managed to rebut claims that it is anti-Christian. "Our opponents have nothing to say about us as we have tackled corruption and other issues successfully," said BJP Junior Home Minister Kiren Rijiju, who led the party's poll bid in Nagaland.
In Meghalaya, church leaders including Catholics have also expressed concern over the BJP's policies.
"We [Christians] don't have any strategy to counter the BJP but we are confident of one thing: The resilience and strong secular mind of Indians," said G Anthony, a Christian academic.
The Reverend W R Marak, a Christian tribal leader in Garo, believes that "not everyone" in the BJP will act aggressively toward Christians.
"The challenge is to deal with fringe elements in the BJP," he said.
Despite all the positive news for the BJP, its upbeat mood has been countered by Derek O'Brien of the Trinamool Congress, a provincial party in West Bengal.
He said northeastern states can't be considered heavyweights as their populations are only the size of districts in bigger states like Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan.
"The BJP can impress [smaller] states but its support is waning in places like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan," he said while issuing a warning that the 2019 general election could offer an entirely different result for the party.
Nirendra Dev is a political observer based in New Delhi