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Can The BJP Spread Its Hold In The Northeast?

22/06/2016 8:50 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, left, and the party’s Assam state President Sarbananda Sonowal wave to the crowd during an election campaign rally in Nagaon, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, Saturday, April 19, 2014. As India, Asia's third-largest economy, holds elections that will gauge the mood of millions of new voters, Modi's Hindu nationalist party is proclaiming the economic success of Gujarat, the western state he's led for more than decade. Critics, however, question whether the extra wealth has translated into better lives for the state’s 60 million people. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has formed a government for the first time ever in the Northeast after winning the state assembly election in Assam. But to make further inroads into the region, the party will first need to prove its relevance and credibility.

The BJP has to remind itself that its win has a lot to do with the Congress's failure in the state despite being in the power for the last 15 years. Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was number two in Tarun Gogoi's government but rebelled and defected to the BJP last year, was an additional factor. Furthermore, the party's chief ministerial candidate, Sarbananda Sonowal, had a clean image.

The new government now has the responsibility of keeping its promises made during the election campaign. One pressing need is to improve the state's socio-economic condition. Assam's Human Development Index is among the lowest in the country, with one-third of its population living Below Poverty Line. It was the Congress's failure to address these issues, coupled with the infighting, that turned the tide against them.

Much of the BJP's rhetoric centred on their promises of flushing out illegal Bangladeshi... it cut ice with the voters. But the situation can turn violent any time...

During the election campaign, much of the BJP's rhetoric centred on their promises of flushing out illegal Bangladeshi immigrants from the state. Given the prevailing xenophobia in the region, it cut ice with the voters. But the situation can turn violent any time, like the Kokrajhar incident of 2012, following which we witnessed the mass exodus of Northeastern communities from other parts of the country fearing a backlash. Similarly, in the Nellie massacre of 1983, thousands of Muslims were massacred in a span of a few hours. The incident still haunts the collective memory of the people.

Assam shares 263km of boundary with Bangladesh and one-third of its population is Muslims. Besides, given the linguistic and ethnic component of the state, the BJP as a dominantly Hindi-speaking party will be keenly watched as they are now in power in a state that has long resisted the Hindi language.

As soon as the state election was declared, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates were quick to claim credit for the victory, and rightly so. For many years now, these right wing Hindu organizations have been working to further their Hindutva agenda in the region. This certainly helped consolidate Hindu votes in favour of the BJP. The success was due to their claim that indigenous faiths are actually strands of the Vedic religion, and hence Hindu in nature.

Since many states in the region have a high concentration of Christians, it will be interesting to see how the BJP's strategy to make inroads unfolds.

About 40% of the population in Assam is indigenous, and that makes these organizations focus on "reconversions" of those who have turned to Christianity and patronize animistic religions under the larger Hindu fold. For example, these groups are deifying Rani Gaidinliu, one of the founding members of the Haraka faith, an animistic religion that has strong following among Zelianrong Nagas in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland. However, since many states in the region have a high concentration of Christians, it will be interesting to see how the BJP's strategy to make inroads unfolds.

With the state election approaching in Manipur early next year, the BJP is likely to have another victory. It's obvious that the people of Manipur, like those of Assam, are tired of the Congress government, and the party in power at the Centre could have a huge influence. Secondly, Hindutva groups are already active in the majority community in the state, the Meiteis, who are mostly Hindus. Although there is a revival of the pre-Hindu religion called Sanamahi, it is essentially an indigenous religion and hence the claim that it belongs to the larger Hindu family.

The central government has been interested in the Northeast given its Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (MDONER) and Look-East Policy/Act-East Policy. And for the well-funded Hindutva groups, the region is largely considered a fertile ground for ideological experiments. With the BJP already in power in the largest state of the region, they will hope to step further into other states. But what the party does in Assam will determine their ability to have a lasting impact in the region.

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