North East Democratic Alliance has facilitated BJP's political penetration into north-eastern states of India Photograph: (Facebook)
The complexity of cow politics poses a serious challenge to BJP's electoral momentum in NE India
After sweeping all of the Hindi heartland and western parts of the country in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party framed a ‘Look North-East’ plan and set about achieving its goal to gain a foothold in the region. The northeastern states posed a challenge because the political structure there was a maze of regional outfits, and the Congress was already a dominant presence. Besides, there was little the BJP had done in the region in recent years to be counted as a serious player. It became clear to the party at the outset that it would have to pick and choose allies from among the regional parties and lead an effective coalition. In some states, it could be the dominant partner, in others, it would have to cede space. And so began the plan’s execution — the ‘Act North-East’, with party president Amit and a clutch of influential regional leaders burning the midnight oil.
The results have been quick in coming. The BJP now has a government in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. Its ally rules in Sikkim, and the party is already working out combinations for Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram. The biggest casualty of the BJP’s aggression in the North-East has been the Congress. It lost Assam (through the ballot box), Arunachal Pradesh (through political migration) and Manipur (as a result of poor post-poll result strategising).
And even as the Congress grapples to stem the slide, the BJP is optimally using the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) to ride into the region. Launched by the BJP after the party’s spectacular victory in Assam in May 2016, NEDA is a broadband political alliance of some 11 regional parties.
In a sense, therefore, the Assam result was the protein-boost for NEDA. The BJP displaced the Congress-led Tarun Gogoi regime with a massive win. The two main factors responsible for the outcome were the voters’ growing disenchantment with the Congress, and their shift towards a party that was until recently considered an ‘outsider’. Both these factors are going to play out in the subsequent months as more North-East states go to polls. But Assam also offers a third reason, and which the Congress will do well to understand if it has to counter the BJP’s rise: The effective use of powerful regional leaders.
But Assam also offers a third reason, and which the Congress will do well to understand if it has to counter the BJP’s rise: The effective use of powerful regional leaders.
The man who played a significant role in scripting the BJP’s victory — Himanta Biswa Sarma — was only months before a Congress leader. He had been with the party for two decades but found himself pushed to the sidelines by both the central and local leaderships. Neither of the two seemed to have grasped his potential. The BJP did, and soon after Sarma walked into its camp, party president Amit Shah identified him as the key person to devise the electoral campaign for Assam. The rest, as they say, is history. Sarma is today the convenor of NEDA, even as he juggles with his responsibilities as a minister in the Assam government led by Sarbanand Sonowal, and is considered the prime pusher for the BJP’s drive into the North-East.
If the Assam win triggered the formalisation of NEDA, the alliance ran into some early embarrassment as well. In mid-2016, after a political mess in Arunachal Pradesh which saw the destabilisation of the then Congress regime allegedly by the BJP, the Supreme Court restored the regime. It was a setback for the BJP and for NEDA. But characteristically enough, the Congress failed to hold on to the advantage for long. The People’s Party of Arunachal came along, then the PPA split and a major faction joined the BJP, thus giving the national party a government in the state on a platter. The Congress’s failure to read the signals and act before the crisis blew on its face as badly as it did in Assam.
But while political management has been the focus of attention in the success of the BJP and the decline of the Congress in the North-East, one factor that has played a steady but silent role in the changing political dynamics of the region is the rise of the RSS. Till a few years ago, the organisation had just one branch in the entire region; today it has four divisions with several branches that cover Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram.
The Nagaland party chief has said that a ban on cow slaughter will not happen if the BJP comes to power in the state
The growth of the RSS has been due to effective mobilisation on the plank of ‘Hindu identity’, but also in the belief (right or wrong) that the RSS is not opposed to the minorities — who form a significant base of the population in the North-East. Besides, the RSS has been doing a good deal of social work for decades among the tribals and the less privileged, encompassing the areas of education and health. Of course, a lot of this has had to do with countering the work done by outfits of minority faiths, especially the Christian missionaries; RSS would like to refer to all such activities as proselytising.
Having gained ground, the BJP’s challenge is not just to sustain the electoral momentum; it comes also from a different and interesting source: cow politics. Across the country, the party has made cow protection a sacred duty. In BJP-ruled states particularly, there is a sense of belligerence in this direction, with certain elements taking the issue to violent extremes. But beef is consumed in considerable quantity in the three States that vote next year in Assembly elections — Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland — and so the BJP’s local units are treading carefully.
The Nagaland party chief has said that a ban on cow slaughter will not happen if the BJP comes to power in the state because the “reality here is very different and our central leaders are aware of it”. There is no doubt that the party will have to do some intricate manoeuvring. According to the 2001 Census, 88 per cent of Nagaland’s population, 87 per cent of Mizoram’s population and close to 75 per cent of Meghalaya’s population are Christian, who eat beef.
The difference in approach has its own credibility problems. If cow protection is a deeply-felt belief for the rank and file of the BJP, how will the party reconcile to a different approach for cows in the North-East? Does the duality not strengthen criticism against them, of using the beef issue as a political tool to raise passions across the country in general? However, given the sensitivity attached nationwide, it’s unlikely that the BJP’s political opponents will risk using the issue during election time against the party. That could be some solace for the BJP.