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Modi’s party downplays 'Hindutva' to woo Christians in NE India

The BJP’s approach in northeast India is marked by its stress on governance rather than religion
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center) along with Chief Minister of Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma (center, left) waves to supporters during a public rally in Guwahati on Feb. 4.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center) along with Chief Minister of Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma (center, left) waves to supporters during a public rally in Guwahati on Feb. 4. (Photo: AFP)

Published: April 16, 2024 04:48 AM GMT
Updated: April 16, 2024 05:03 AM GMT

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) takes pride in being the champion of Hindu interests even if it must antagonize religious minorities like Christians and Muslims.

But in the country's northeastern region comprising seven states, which together send 25 members to the 543-seat Lok Sabha or lower house of parliament, the BJP has a different strategy in place.

Here, the Hindutva agenda is in cold storage and the electoral tasks are left to its allies, especially in the Christian-majority states, like the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) in Nagaland and the National People's Party (NPP) in Meghalaya.

Of the 25 parliamentary seats in the region, 14 are in Assam, two each in Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura, and Arunachal Pradesh, and one each in Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim.

Christians are a majority in three small states in a sparsely populated, fertile mountain range — Nagaland (88 percent), Mizoram (87 percent) and Meghalaya (75 percent). In Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, they form more than 40 percent of the population, and in Sikkim, they are some 10 percent.

In the biggest northeastern state of Assam, Christians are less than four percent of the population. However, their votes are decisive in certain pockets where they are numerically stronger.

Most parts of the region will vote on April 19, but the counting of votes will take place on June 4.

The ethnic violence that began on May 3 last year between tribal Kukis, who are Christians, and the majority Hindu Meitei community has deeply polarized the state of Manipur.

Tribal Kuki leaders allege the BJP governments in New Delhi and the state are tacitly supporting the Meiteis. Their grievance may influence the poll outcome in the Outer Manipur constituency, which covers the Kuki-dominated hills of Manipur.

Kachui Timothy Zimick, a former civil servant who is contesting the election as a BJP ally, has a tough contest ahead in Outer Manipur as voters from the Kuki-Zo and Naga tribes, who are mostly Christian, are likely to vote against him.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi skipped campaigning during the Mizoram state polls in 2023, since the Mizos share ethnic ties with Kukis. A substantial number of the thousands rendered homeless in Manipur due to the violence are said to have taken shelter in Mizoram.

In the Christian stronghold state of Meghalaya, the BJP opted out of the poll race to support its regional partner, NPP led by Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma, who is a Catholic.

In the Tura constituency, Sangma's sister Agatha Sangma is in the fray. She previously served as a federal minister in the Congress government and is a sitting parliamentarian.

In Nagaland, the BJP has taken a back seat and let its poll ally, the NDPP, test the waters, while in Mizoram, the ruling Zoram People's Movement (ZPM), which is not even an ally, is allowed a free run.

As the natives of Mizoram say, “The ‘Lotus’ flower [BJP’s poll symbol] cannot bloom in the hard rocks” of the state.

But India’s ruling pro-Hindu party can draw solace from the fact that its main challenger Congress, which once ruled in both Mizoram and Nagaland for decades, is a marginalized force in both states.

The grand old party dating back to India’s freedom struggle has failed to win any seat in Nagaland in the previous two assembly polls in 2018 and 2023.

The BJP, apart from Assam, can draw solace in Arunachal Pradesh, where the parliamentary and state assembly elections are being held simultaneously. It has already won 10 of the 60 assembly seats unopposed with no opposition parties fielding candidates on five seats and rivals withdrawing their nominations in five more.

The pro-Hindu party was confident of bagging the remaining 50 assembly seats and the two parliamentary seats in the state.

The Arunachal Christian Forum (ACF) in an April 3 circular urged all its member and denominational organizations to “extend full support and work for” Congress candidates Nabam Tuki and Bosiram Siram, who are contesting against the BJP’s sitting parliamentarians from the two Lok Sabha constituencies in the state.

However, Congress is struggling hard to keep itself politically relevant in Arunachal Pradesh as well as the rest of the states in the northeast region. Its leaders have abandoned the party to join the BJP.

The BJP chief ministers N. Biren Singh (Manipur), Himanta Biswa Sarma (Assam), Pema Khandu (Arunachal Pradesh), and Manik Saha (Tripura) are all Congress imports. Even NDPP leader and Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio is a former congressman.

BJP leaders are hoping introducing the Inner Line Permit (ILP) in Manipur will help it win tribal hearts in the state and elsewhere in the region. This state government-issued license allows Indian citizens to visit the area for a limited time, which tribal people believe will help to stop the unwanted inflow of non-tribal people into their areas.

The Modi dispensation has also been generous in funding development projects for the remote region and making efforts to pursue the rebel armed groups to end the insurgency.

As Modi told the international magazine Newsweek: "With the vibrant villages program, we are bringing about a transformation in border villages, which were previously ignored. The eastern and northeastern part of India, which was long ignored, has seen an unprecedented push on infrastructure.”

The BJP’s approach in northeast India is marked by its stress on governance rather than religion. But one wonders if the approach would change once it gains power. That should be the real worry for the voters.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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