Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is ‘reconnecting’ with the region that once provided him the beverage — tea — to earn a living. But more importantly for the BJP, his maiden visit to Assam after becoming the party’s prime ministerial candidate will test his ability to emulate former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee in appealing to a region removed from the saffron ideology.
Modi is scheduled to address public rallies in Guwahati and Manipur capital Imphal on Saturday.
The eight-state North-East is not the BJP’s happy hunting ground. The party had its moments, but the region has remained its final frontier. The Christian-majority population in some hill states, the status of the Congress as the only “national party brand”, more trust in regional parties and perception of the BJP as “too Hindi belt” are the major factors.
The BJP did defy the odds a decade ago. And it was primarily because of the image of Vajpayee, who did what was thought to be impossible — give his ‘Hindu party’ a foothold in the assembly of militancy-mauled Christian-majority Nagaland.
During a visit in 2003 Vajpayee convinced Nagaland, seeking an alternative to the Congress, that the BJP did not view fringe cultures through the mainstream or Hindutva lens. In the election to the state’s 60-member assembly that year, the BJP bagged seven seats and formed a coalition government with the Naga People’s Front (NPF).
The former PM’s acceptability also played a role in the BJP forming a government in Arunachal Pradesh later that year, after 41 Congress legislators defected. The government lasted a year until the 2004 assembly elections, but it helped the BJP occupy some political space by riding piggyback on regional parties.
In almost a decade since, the BJP has ceded a substantial chunk of its space. Reasons: the distance maintained by the regional parties and its inability to fill the vacuum — from the north-eastern perspective — left behind by Vajpayee.
The BJP’s hope of expanding its base or even repeating its 2003 showing hinges on the kind of impact Modi will have on the region’s electorate. The visit prior to the Lok Sabha polls is also expected to test his acceptability as a leader beyond the Hindi heartland.
Modi’s elevation, incidentally, coincided with a slide in the BJP’s fortunes in the North-East, which offers 25 MPs. The dismal show continued with the elections to the 40-member Mizoram assembly in December.
The 17 candidates the BJP fielded in Mizoram got 2,139 votes, and together they finished 413 votes ahead of NOTA (none of the above). The party’s performance in Christian-majority Mizoram was understandable. But then, it hardly has anything to indicate its popularity elsewhere in the North-East.
However, Assam BJP president Sarbananda Sonowal said: “The popularity of our party is growing.” He justified this by pointing to the Guwahati civic polls earlier this year. Of the 31 wards, the BJP bagged 11 against the Congress’s 19 while the Asom Gana Parishad managed only one.
“No national party cares about the North-East more than the BJP, and this was evident when a department for the region was created during NDA rule. We will focus on the region after the people give us a chance to be in power at the Centre,” BJP president Rajnath Singh said during a recent visit to Guwahati.
Singh has not been convincing about the BJP’s outreach. The party hopes Modi will.