Braving beef ban controversy, the pro-Hindutva BJP is in serious mood to penetrate Christianmajority Meghalaya.
If ‘the winner takes it all’ is a phrase that suits Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP today, to be on the right side of that ‘winner’ is being seen as the pragmatism of many northeast politicians.
The massive mandate in favour of Narendra Modi in 2014 and several state assembly elections including in northeast has been a gamechanger in more ways than one in the country’s politics. It’s true politicians are like chameleons, changing colour when it suits them; with the changes blowing in the wind, a lot of that has happened in the northeast during the last three years notwithstanding the fact that the BJP hardly existed in these states. “Lotus cannot bloom in the hard rock of northeast hills” – was a refrain that has been challenged forthwith by the political machinations and muscle-flexing politics of Amit Shah and Modi. Meghalaya – cradled in the hills as an ‘abode of clouds’ is one such state that has defied multiple challenges and it goes to the credit of Congress Chief Minister Mukul Sangma that Congress flag has been flying in this state.
But the BJP leaders are working overtime and investing all kinds of resources and skills to make deeper penetration.
The two Independent MLAs from Meghalaya met the BJP president Amit Shah in New Delhi along with the state BJP president Shibun Lyngdoh and influential BJP leader from Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Justine Dkhar represents Khlehriat assembly constituency while Robinus Syngkon represents Mowkaiaw constituency. Both are set to join the BJP formally at a grand ceremony in Shillong.
How does one decode the electoral strategy of the BJP whose cult of religiosity and communal Hindu agenda have often left the minorities – Christians and Muslims– irked?
BJP leader Nalin Kohli recently met up a number of church leaders in Shillong sparking off a major row. Apparently presence of some retired government servants, bankers and former Congress leaders have irked the Congress camp. Predictably, Mukul Sangma fielded his trusted colleague Ronnie Lyngdoh – who alleged that the saffron party had some kind of a “hidden agenda” trying to appease the church leaders and also exploit the ‘weakness’ of non-Christian tribals.
Christianity foundation is quite strong in Meghalaya – among the three major tribes Khashis, Garos and Jaintias. Yet, there is an overwhelming section who are tribals and follow their ‘traditional religion’ and somehow stay away from general definition of Christians. But the truth of the matter is they are ‘not Hindus’ and any effort to create divisions amongst tribals (natives) on the pretext of Christians and non-Christians would not help BJP.
The saffron party strategists seemed to appreciate the ground reality and therefore have played down the ‘political importance’ of Nalin Kohli’s meeting. “The meeting had no political agenda. It was a social gathering of intellectuals and Christians were part of that group,” local BJP leader JA Lyngdoh told this writer. He further said that most of the ‘controversy’ vis-a-vis BJP’s programmes and policies (read including beef ban) has been hyped by “a visibly nervous Congress”. “Only agenda of BJP is development and a corruption-free government in Meghalaya which the Congress fears. Thus Congress is trying to mislead the people on BJP.”
But it is also true that such challenges and criticism of the BJP is nothing new and the party leaders have handled these issues in other states as well.
The Congress leaders in Meghalaya know it pretty well that even as ‘beef ban’ is a major issue – only such an issue cannot help them stall the forward march of Amit Shah and party. Thus, the saffron party strategists are trying to project development as a major issue and lacing it up well with the charges of corruption against Mukul Sangma’s government and also the ‘popularity’ of Narendra Modi especially in urban pockets.
And of all these issues – even Congress leaders privately admit that by harping on the issue of ‘corruption’, the BJP could highlight and hence exploit one of the demerits of the Congress regime.
“As a party and their pro-Hindutva ideology, the BJP may not have many takers in Meghalaya. But when it comes to corruption, they may win over a substantial section,” says a Shillong-based former banker who attended the meeting of Christian leaders and the BJP leader Nalin Kohli.
Even within party fold people say the chief minister has promoted his family members. Not long ago, it came to light that Sangma’s wife Dikkanchi Shira, a sitting legislator in the assembly, owns as many as six coal mines. The chief minister is on the defensive and says these were declared to the Election Commission in 2013. The BJP leaders say there has been a conflict of interest when the chief minister lately tried to write letters seeking revocation of ban on mines. “Doing so as a chief minister and when his wife owns mines is not proper,” a local BJP leader said.
In other words, all these issues are figuring in election campaigns that have started off with street corner meetings and informal community gatherings.
But the BJP leaders are not making any prestige issue of their fight and have thus decided to win over regional players like National People’s Party (NPP). The NPP floated by Late PA Sangma, former Speaker of Lok Sabha, is already part of the ruling alliance of BJP in the central politics. Hence, says Donkuper James, a local teacher: “The BJP will try piggyback NPP. This will make a difference. NPP is popular among Garo tribals and hence NPP-BJP combine can make some difference”.
In that eventuality, the BJP is open to installing Late Sangma’s son Conrad Sangma (present Lok Sabha MP from Tura) as the chief minister. They believe – installing a non-Congress chief minister will be a good stepping stone to their more glorious future and certainly a step towards ‘Congress-free’ northeast.
But locals now aver that the BJP is trying to ‘exploit’ the small borderline differences between indigenous Khashis (who are tribals but they need not be Christians) and the rest – the Christians. Agrees a BJP insider, there is an emerging section who is“interested in being Khashi in terms of culture – music, dance and attire” – but may not be inclined to Christian rituals.
But a former Congress leader K Barnabas cautions BJP from trying such ‘gimmicks’. “Any attempt to increase the gulf between tribal Christians, accounting about 70 per cent, and native tribals but non-Christians would not help. It may only boomerang,” he says.
The BJP leaders, however, counter such contentions. “We can file a complaint with the state police and the central intelligence agencies against vested interest groups who are using the social media to spread rumours that the BJP is anti-Christian,” says BJP leader JA Lyngdoh. While such complaint would be self-defeating, importantly the BJP is trying to spread a message that in neighbouring Nagaland in 2003 the party had won as many as seven MLAs on BJP tickets and all were Christians.
Moreover, they say in Goa also the BJP has been able to win Christian stronghold seats and at one point the party had a Christian deputy chief minister in Goa.
“In Meghalaya most BJP leaders eat beef. The question of banning beef does not arise in a state like Meghalaya. BJP leaders in Meghalaya are well aware of the historical background and the constitutional provisions over hill areas. If BJP comes to power in 2018, BJP will not ban beef. Instead it will regulate proper rates for meat and legalise slaughter houses, reducing the prices of beef and other meat,” says BJP leader Bernard Marak.
Veteran Congressman Mukul Sangma is no easy pushover however. He has been making the right noises and often took up the cudgels against Narendra Modi himself. But he has enemies within. Some Congress legislators are upset with Mukul Sangma because they missed out on ministerial berths and are said to be fomenting a rebellion against Sangma’s monopoly over the Congress party in the state – especially during the last decade.
Therefore, now it remains to be seen whether Mukul Sangma’s electoral victory next year will be the only saving grace for Sonia Gandhi when the Congress party has in the recent past lost power in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. In another Christian-dominated Nagaland, the Congress is already on a weak wicket.