Not long ago, when retired Indian Police Service (IPS) officer and Congress leader H T Sangliana was a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he had vowed to transform BJP into Bharatiya Jesus Party to increase its footprint in India’s north east. “I had coined it as a political slogan,” says Sangliana. “Political slogans are well, political slogans. Although I haven’t been in touch with politics in the region for some time, this slogan could well turn out to be true. There have been increased instances of violence against Christians in India over the last few years” Sangliana told Business Standard without elaborating how this would affect the BJP’s prospects in the upcoming polls in the three north-eastern states of Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura. Each of these states assemblies has 60 seats.
Sangliana’s claims of rising violence against Christians in India is substantiated in a report by Persecution Relief. The report documents that there were 379 cases of violence against the Christian community in 12 states of India in 2017 -– up 40 per cent over 2016. Almost a third of the violent incidents were reported in the two BJP-ruled states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, according to the NGO’s report. Non-BJP-ruled states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala also showed an increase in violence against the community.
With Sangliana indirectly indicating that these issues would influence Christian voters, the Congress may well be inclined to paint BJP as a tormentor of Christians in the upcoming polls. And if the Congress succeeds in its electoral pitch, it could spell bad news for the BJP in at least two of the three states going to polls later this month. That’s because both Meghalaya and Nagaland are Christian-majority states. According to Census of India figures, 75 per cent of Meghalaya’s population is Christian while 88 per cent of Nagaland’s population belongs to this community. With the Congress planning to play the Christian card, things could get tough for the BJP in Meghalaya. The party has been consistently losing its influence in the state since 2003. While it has never won a seat in Meghalaya, its vote share has declined from 5.4 per cent in 2003 to 1.3 per cent in the last assembly elections held in 2013.
But the BJP has three reasons to be optimistic about its prospects despite being up against a formidable adversary and an electorate that doesn’t fit into either its caste or religious calculations. Firstly, almost 13 per cent of Meghalaya’s population will become eligible to vote for the first time in the 2018 assembly elections scheduled to be held on February 27. These people, who were 10 to 14 years old when they were counted in the last Census, are expected to be more in tune with mainstream politics than their parents. With Modi’s image entrenched as a messiah peddling dreams to the young, these voters could potentially gravitate towards the BJP.
Secondly, fighting the elections with Conrad Sangma's National People’s Party (NPP) would be a shot in the arm for the BJP’s prospects in the state. Conrad is the son of late Congress renegade and Lok Sabha speaker P A Sangma. This was evident in the 2014 parliamentary polls, when Sangma’s party, along with BJP, got almost 32 per cent of the vote share, winning one out of the two seats in the state. The BJP alone got more than nine per cent of the vote share -– a significant jump as compared to its previous assembly election results. P A Sangma, even after his death in 2016, remains popular among the state’s majority Christian population. With Conrad leading the charge, an invocation of Sangma's name could decisively swing the mandate in favour of the BJP-NPP alliance.
Thirdly, eight members of legislative assembly (MLAs), including five from the Congress, switched to Conrad Sangma’s camp in December last year. With these rebel MLAs now part of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), the Congress and other state parties such as United Democratic Party (UDP) could have a hard time staving off the challenge posed by these defectors working alongside Conrad Sangma’s foot soldiers. With such strong tailwinds, the BJP could well be propelled towards its best performance in Meghalaya till date.
A similar situation awaits the BJP in Nagaland. The BJP’s fortunes in the state have consistently declined over the years. In 2003, the party had won seven seats with an 11 per cent vote share. In the last assembly elections in 2013, the party was reduced to a single seat, with its vote share plummeting below two per cent. No wonder the BJP’s apparatchiks have decided to call off their 15-year-long alliance with the Naga People’s Front (NPF). With Modi being seen as leader who orchestrated the Naga peace accord, the BJP could reap some electoral benefits from these perceptions among Naga voters. The Nagaland polls too are hanging in balance. With less than 24 hours to go for nominations to close, none of the candidates have yet filed their papers. This has raised the prospect of a blanket boycott of elections in Nagaland.
Perhaps, the BJP is most excited about its prospects in Tripura despite facing its most daunting challenge in the state, where the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has been in power for 25 years. The BJP’s campaign in Tripura is being managed by Sunil Deodhar, who was Narendra Modi’s campaign manager in Varanasi in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Like Meghalaya, the party has poached several opposition leaders, including a former president of the Congress. This forced CPM politburo member Prakash Karat, at a recent election meeting in the state, to reportedly admit, “All earlier elections in the state were fought between the Left Front and the Congress. But this time, it is a contest between the BJP and the Left Front as Congress leaders and supporters had joined the saffron party.”
Tripura is also the kind of electoral playground where the BJP, now in power at the Centre, would want to test its Hindutva maxim afresh. According to Census figures, the Hindu population in the state has grown by 12 per cent between 2001 to 2011. But the Muslim population in Tripura has grown by 56 per cent during the same period. The Christian population meanwhile has grown almost a quarter. This has led to a drop in the proportion of Hindus in Tripura’s population, even though they continue to be the largest majority in the state. With Congress using the Christian card against the BJP and the saffron party raring to unleash its Hindutva firepower, the elections to these three North-Eastern states could well be the most high-voltage contest witnessed in a long time.