How Did BJP Win Christian-dominated North-East?
It offered a cocktail of religious tolerance, cultural indigenisation
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an unabashedly Hindu nationalist party wedded to promoting “Hindutva”. But despite carrying this rather heavy baggage, the BJP has made significant inroads in India’s North Eastern Christian-dominated States like Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram.
Even in Arunachal Pradesh, which is more diverse, Christians constitute 30% of the population. The BJP has also made inroads among the non-Hindu/ non-Christian tribes of Arunachal Pradesh who are 26% of the population.
The BJP has overtaken, if not eliminated, the Congress, an all-Indian secular party, which earlier had a strong appeal in the North Eastern socio-religious milieu.
After the just-held State Assembly elections in Meghalaya and Nagaland, the BJP is set to be part of the governments to be formed by local, indigenous Christian tribal parties. In Nagaland, the BJP won 12 seats and is expected to be part of the government formed by the local Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP).
In Meghalaya, the BJP won only two seats in the house of 60, but its leadership in New Delhi has asked the Meghalaya unit to support the local Nationalist Peoples’ Party (NPP) so that the NPP is able to form the government.
The basic idea is to keep the Congress, the BJP’s national opponent, out of power. On its part, the NPP will go along with the BJP because it sees the advantages of having, as its ally, a party that dominates the Central government in Delhi like a colossus. For small States like Meghalaya and Mizoram, the Central government is virtually the only source of finances as the taxes collected locally are inadequate.
But what is remarkable is not clever political maneuvering, at which the BJP is a past master, but the fact that the majority Christian community in Nagaland and Meghalaya vote for the BJP and the local, 100% Christian, parties have no compunction about aligning themselves with BJP, a Hindutva outfit.
This is especially striking because they are not unaware of the fact that the BJP or its ideological affiliates, are known for their anti-Christian rhetoric and attacks on churches in some parts of India. These outfits suspect Christian-run institutions of carrying out “unethical conversions”.
The BJP’s ideological affiliates have also been carrying on campaigns against cow slaughter and beef eating and have lynched Muslims for allegedly taking cows for slaughter.
But the Christians of Meghalaya, Nagaland, and other tribes of the North East, who eat beef, are not perturbed by those incidents. Of course, the BJP has been at pains to explain to the locals that it will not apply its Hindu dietary norms among them, as indeed it does not apply them in other States with substantial Christian populations like Goa and Kerala.
The beef ban does not apply in Kashmir which is 85% Muslim. The BJP has shared power with local Kashmiri parties and has not challenged the dietary norms or Islamic cultural practices in Kashmir. The BJP also points out that all its candidates are themselves beef-eating Christians.
The BJP makes up for its ideological incongruities not only by modifying its Hindutva predilections, but by ensuring that the Central government’s social and economic welfare schemes are carried out satisfactorily in the Christian-majority States. It seeks participation in local governments so that it can deliver the goods better.
On their part, the local allies of the BJP see the alliance from a positive, developmental angle. Pre-election coverage revealed that the voters had seen the benefits of voting for the BJP.
Although the scheme to supply rice at reasonable rates predates Narendra Modi’s coming to power at the Centre in 2014, voters said that they got rice, which they call “Modi rice”, only in the past three years. The North-Eastern States have also benefited from Modi’s scheme to build toilets.
The BJP has correctly grasped the fact that the Christian tribal communities in North Eastern India have given up their decades-long demand for independence and now want to be part of economically booming India. They aspire for economic advancement and not independence any more.
The youth are no longer enamored of the gun. Although a Naga rebel group is still holding out, and an agreement between it and the Central government is still to be concluded, the population is aware of the fact that successive Indian governments had taken significant steps towards granting the right to internal self-determination.
Over the years, Indian governments have facilitated the formation of new States based on ethnicity. The erstwhile sprawling Hindu-majority State of Assam was divided into ethnicity-based Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya, which are Christian-majority. The Centrally Administered tribal entity called North Eastern Frontier Agency (NEFA), with a 30% Christian and a 26% tribal religious population, was made a full-fledged State.
The BJP has also been winning over the local tribal populations by reviving their indigenous religious beliefs or cultural heritages. The BJP is promoting local, indigenous revivalism, not Hindu revivalism here.
According to a 2022 article by Syeda Ambia Zahan in Outlook magazine, Prime Minister Modi inaugurated the “Hornbill Festival” in Nagaland, which is an inter-tribal festival considered the “Festival of Festivals” by the Nagas. Modi was dressed in the traditional Naga attire, and departing from his normal practice of speaking in Hindi, he addressed the huge audience in English, which is better understood in Nagaland.
“The striking part of his speech was when he encouraged the people to chant Kuknalim which means Victory to Nagalim/Nagaland instead of Jai Hind (Victory to India),” Zahan wrote.
The writer further said that the BJP started glorifying Rani Gaidinilu, an anti-Christian Naga woman leader and an advocate of the Nagas’ indigenous faith. In 1930 she had even raised a three-tribe Zeliangrong army against the British to establish Naga Raj, and resist the Nagas' conversion to Christianity.
“Rani Gaidinliu had advocated a separate Zeliangrong territory within the Union of India and fought against Kevi Yalay Phizo’s Naga National Council (NNC) that wanted a separate Nagalim out of the Indian Union. For the BJP, Rani Gaidinliu is the perfect face that chimes with the idea of Akhand Bharat,” Zahan said.
“In Arunachal Pradesh the BJP created a Department of Indigenous Faiths and Cultural Affairs. The Department started codifying and formalizing local faiths like Donyi-Polo, Amik Matai, Nani-Intaya and Rangfrah to create a front against the Christians,” Zahan added.
The revival of indigenous faiths will pass muster in Arunachal Pradesh because the Christian influence is weaker here than in Nagaland and Meghalaya. But if a similar thing is done in Nagaland, Meghalaya or Mizoram, where Baptist and other Christian churches are very strong, there could be a backlash.
In fact, till very recently, the churches had appealed to voters not to vote for the BJP. Earlier, when the pro-independence rebels were strong, they had even urged boycott of elections with a fair amount of success.
However, it is expected that the politically savvy BJP will go slow with indigenization of religious beliefs in the Christian-majority States. It’s a question of survival in a geopolitically critical region of India sharing sensitive borders with Myanmar, China and Bangladesh.