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How BJP tweaked its campaign for Christian-majority Meghalaya

The BJP has been careful in its campaign, careful not to embarrass local leadership or potential allies with its “Hindutva” brand of politics that has served it well in other parts of the country.

Meghalaya Elections 2018 Updated: Feb 25, 2018 18:10 IST
Kumar Uttam
Kumar Uttam
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
BJP,Bharatiya Janata Party,Meghalaya Election 2018
Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves during his campaign rally ahead of Meghalaya Assembly elections at Phulbari on February 22, 2018.(PTI File Photo)

In his campaign push for Meghalaya that votes on February 27, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken the foreign-policy route to drive home the point that the BJP was not anti-Christian and was committed to respecting local customs and traditions.

“We have not remained a silent spectator when Christian missionaries and minority workers were terrorised in conflict zones,” he said at a poll rally in Phulbari on February 22.

To drive home the point, Modi cited the rescue of 46 nurses from Iraq, safe return of Father Alex Premkumar from captivity in Afghanistan and release of Father Tom Uzhunnalil after a year in captivity in Yemen.

The Prime Minister was not only showcasing India’s increasing clout at the world stage but was also trying to tamper the Bharatiya Janata Party’s “hardline Hindutva” image in a state where Christians account for 75% of the population.

Meghalaya votes for 60-member assembly on February 27

Modi’s effort is in tune with several such moves the party has made across the Northeast. Party leaders say it reflects the BJP’s respect for India’s cultural diversity, critics call it hypocrisy.

In the run-up to the 2017 election in Manipur, another state with as sizable minority population, the party’s Christian candidates often referred to the BJP as the Bharatiya Jesus Party to allay apprehensions about its alleged anti-minority character.

“Since then, it has become a running joke among BJP’s Christian leaders in the region, but is also a reflection of party’s adaptability,” a BJP leader in Delhi said.

The real test, however, will be Meghalaya, where the party’s rivals, particularly the ruling Congress, have attacked the BJP for its alleged saffron agenda. The Church, too, has spoken openly against the party.

The BJP has been careful in its campaign, careful not to embarrass local leadership or potential allies with its “Hindutva” brand of politics that has served it well in other parts of the country.

The effort has been to stay away from controversial issues and reach out to Christians as much as it can.

The party has followed a broad four-point strategy -- pick the right people to shepherd the campaign, keep local sensitivities in mind in navigating the tricky issue of beef, decide on alliances and choose the right candidates.

The leaders

The party picked spokesman Nalin Kohli, a moderate and suave lawyer-politician, as the state in-charge in July 2015. Kohli was the only spokesman to be given such a responsibility. His familiarity and his family’s links with the Northeast played a part in the decision -- his father was the governor of neighbouring Mizoram for five years.

In August that year, Congress leader Himanta Biswa Sarma crossed over to the BJP and was soon the party’s pointsman for the Northeast.

Over the next few months, Sarma and Kohli scouted for candidates.

“Meghalaya is largely a candidate-driven election,” says Kohli. Before the election was called, four sitting legislators and several former MLAs joined the BJP.

The job to strengthen the organisation was left to Ram Lal, Ram Madhav and Ajay Jamwal, the three Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh leaders serving the BJP in different capacities.

In September 2017, Madhav, the party’s general secretary and in-charge of the Northeast, and Sarma appointed KJ Alphons, a Christian bureaucrat-turned-politician from Kerala, the poll in-charge for Meghalaya.

Alphons had spent several of his student years in Meghalaya and had strong links with the Church and Christian leaders.

“The appointment of Alphons and Kohli well before the election was announced showed that the party was conscious of its limitation and chances in Meghalaya,” a second BJP leader said.

The beef issue

In July last year, two local senior leaders walked out of the party over the beef controversy, setting off alarm bells in Delhi. They were not allowed to hold a beef party to mark the third year of the Modi government.

The BJP swung into action, with Sarma asking local leaders to avoid the controversy. At the same time, Madhav alerted the party’s national leadership that the actions of the fringe groups in the Hindi heartland would hurt the party’s prospects in the Northeast.

“It took us months to convince our anxious local leaders that the BJP was not for regulating eating habits,” a third BJP leader said. “I remember that we had to address a one-and-a-half-hour-long press conference at the peak of the controversy to allay fears of our leaders and public on this issue.”

Three months later, the state BJP said the Centre had no intention to ban beef in Meghalaya, as livestock was a state subject.

“The very fact that the Congress campaign is focused on branding the BJP as anti-Christian, despite being in power in the state for 15 years, confirmed there is a surge in favour of us,” Kohli adds.

But the fear that the party could impose its agenda has not fully disappeared.

Poll alliance

The next challenge for the party was deciding on an alliance.

After much deliberation, the BJP decided against joining hands with the National People’s Party of Conrad Sangma even though the NPP is an ally at the Centre.

The idea was to keep a safe distance and protect the NPP from a political backlash, if any, among Christians. The two could come together after the election should the NPP need support to form government, a BJP leader said.

Candidates

The party, which rarely fields minority candidates in north India, kept local dynamics in mind while picking candidates. “More than 70% of BJP’s 47 candidates in Meghalaya are Christians,” a BJP campaign manager said in Shillong on condition of anonymity.

Candidates done, the campaign got the boost from the very top. Modi addressed two and BJP chief Amit Shah three rallies.

Irrespective of how the votes stack up on March 3, the BJP’s Meghalaya campaign has given a glimpse of the party’s ability to adapt to a different setting.

First Published: Feb 25, 2018 15:22 IST