When BJP was rejoicing its historic victory in the Assam Assembly election this year, a Naga intellectual in Kohima said in a restraint note, "We will have to wait and closely watch the new government’s activity in Assam."
Her statement reflected the fear among some of the Christians in the northeastern states, that when BJP has arrived as close as Assam then the other states of the region could not be far away.
Congress and other political rivals of BJP in the region did their best to fuel this fear. Even the NDA regimes move to popularise Yoga was resisted in many parts of the region for purportedly being a move to Hinduize the local Christian population.
But much to the woes of its rivals, BJP in its bid to appeal to the masses had by then moved far away from its ideological underpinnings. When the issue of beef ban created a whirlwind in national media, Himanta Biswa Sarma a BJP leader in Assam surprisingly declared in a public meeting that the new government will not decide on as to what meat the people of the state should eat. Even more surprisingly, a single RSS leader did not bat eyelid at his comment.
BJP has been trying hard with some success to metamorphose itself into a new form without any hardline Hindutva affiliation but with much inclusiveness. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has even been seen attending Iftar parties in Assam in recent past.
The result is evident. North East India, where even a sizeable number of Hindus do not follow the Brahminic form of Hinduism has now two states — Assam and Arunachal Pradesh — governed by the saffron party. The party is even marching ahead of ruling Congress party in Manipur, where Christian voters are deciding factors in 19 of the Assembly constituencies out of 60 in total.
Manipur, that is heading for Assembly election next year saw one of the stalwarts, Yumkham Irabot Singh from the ruling Congress party joining BJP. It is read as another signal of the party’s tightening grip over the plains in Manipur.The six-time Congress MLA and former minister’s defection is likely to have a sustaining impact on the state’s electoral politics.
BJP’s march to win the third state, just within six months of forming the first government in the region, is seen as a symbolic success for the party by political analysts. For these three states have been Congress bastions for a rather long period. Moreover hardly anyone was expecting such pace of penetration, given the fear among some over the rise of BJP in the region.
What Congress failed to feel and BJP successfully sensed was the longing of the northeasterners to be part of the national growth story. People in the region often find it very amusing when an economist sitting in Delhi declares that the national economy has grown by a percentage point. For these changes hardly ever touch them.
Convincing the people in North East that their lives matter to the policy makers in Delhi was a steep challenge that BJP seem to have overcome to some extent. The ruling NDA’s vision to bridge the gap of a regional disparity between India’s mainland and North East by implementing an effective ‘Act East Policy’ seems to have struck the right chord.
What Congress increasingly failed to convince the people in the region is its genuine concern to solve the issues plaguing them. Be it the issue of illegal infiltration from Bangladesh, be it the issue of cultural and economic protection of Meiteis in Manipur or be it the issue of peace in Nagaland. Congress has been seen as a party making a business of capturing power out of these issues.
On the other hand, BJP ensured that its measures to deport illegal immigrants to Bangladesh, evicting illegal settlements that are seen as shelters of suspected Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam, supporting demand for inner line permit system made by Meiteis in Manipur and efforts for peace talks in Nagaland look heartfelt endeavors.
What Congress failed to notice in these states was that the beneath its feet was fast slipping away on account of dissidence. BJP’s success lies in winning the trust of these fringe groups. Roping in Himanta Biswa Sarma, a Congress veteran was a game changer in Assam. Similar was the case with late Kalikho Pul in Arunachal Pradesh who formed the government in the state with support from the BJP. The relationship of mutual trust BJP built up with the Congress lawmakers during his term as the chief minister eventually led to the formation of a BJP government in the state under the leadership of Pema Khandu.
But all these happened without any meaningful performance by the six-month-old BJP government in Assam. Not a single mega project has been declared by the new government in the direction of desired economic growth. The NDA’s move to privatise oilfields faced stiff protests from various organisations. Even the NDA regimes move to provide citizenship Hindu Bengalis migrated from Bangladesh has created much discontent in the mainstream Assamese society.
It seems no one is ready to wait and watch the performance of the new dispensation in Assam, unlike the Naga intellectual in Kohima. But will this new fervor for BJP bring about the desired change in the region, still lies a question.