Assembly election results: How RSS helped BJP in Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya
In 2014, the year that saw BJP come to power at the Centre after a landslide victory, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) raised a demand for conferring the country’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, to Rani Gaidinliu, the legendary Naga freedom fighter.
The ostensible reason was to seek honour for the “forgotten” icon from the North Eastern region, but the underlying message was apparent. The Sangh was laying the ground for its political protégé, the BJP, which aspired to gain a foothold in the region. The BJP picked the cue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi presiding over the commemorative birth centenary celebrations of Rani Gaidinliu.
If Rani Gaidinliu was the peg on which to hang the BJP’s North Eastern aspiration, the lack of development in the region became the focal point for the RSS’s work on the ground. It reached out to various tribes through the adroitly run network of affiliates such as the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, an organisation that runs health and education services for the tribal communities, and Seva projects, which are aimed at offering help in deprived and remote areas.
The results were visible after the BJP won Assam and followed it up with another win in Manipur. Work began soon after in the Christian dominated Nagaland and Meghalaya, where the BJP has gained and could well be a part of the government; and, in the Left turf of Tripura, where the BJP looks set to form the government.
The northeast push
Though the RSS maintains it is apolitical, there was convergence between its cadre and the BJP on how to breach the bastions and reach out to people.
PM Modi and his cabinet ministers frequented the region to announce tailored policies for the people. In December last year, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat visited Tripura to take stock of the organization. He followed it by addressing one of the biggest congregations at Guwahati in January. RSS functionaries claim over 5,000 cadre in uniform attended the congregation, which signalled the rise of the Sangh.
RSS functionaries from the region said at the heart of the Sangh’s work is an attempt to address the “neglect” of the people by previous governments at the Centre.
“The Sangh has been active in the region, providing education to the children of tribes that have been neglected. Our work is not political, but the issues that we address are also raised by the BJP, so there is convergence of thought,” said a senior functionary of the Sangh, requesting anonymity.
The Sangh puts a distance between its work and the electoral politics of the BJP, but has had to battle political opposition in the region, and fight perceptions about its plan to impose ‘Hindutva’.
As a consequence, it has had to alter its stand on various issues to assimilate; for instance while it advocates a complete ban on cow slaughter in the rest of the country, it maintains a conspicuous silence on the issue of beef consumption in these parts.
The perception war
In Meghalaya, where the Sangh is vocal about the alleged proselytisation by Christian missionaries, its foot soldiers had to constantly fend accusation of imposing “food choices” and trying to create a homogeneity of culture.
“The Sangh was presented as anti-minority, against the Church, and some tribal groups were misinformed that the Sangh wants them to forgo their traditions. All of these accusations have been proved wrong,” said an RSS functionary from Meghalaya, where the Sangh has been wooing the Garo, Jaintia and Khasi tribes.
The build-up in the communist bastion of Tripura was also not easy. Violent clashes often took place between the Sangh workers and the Communist cadre.
Sunil Deodhar, a former RSS pracharak and now the in charge of the BJP unit in the state said the despite the “negative campaign” against the RSS by the communists, the Sangh highlighted the inadequacies of the administration.
“They did not campaign for the BJP, but people saw the work Sangh does and were encouraged to join. From a mere 50-60 Shakhas (local units), the number has gone up to 250 now,” he said.
The Sangh’s expansion in the state, he said, has helped the BJP to the extent that people were willing to consider it as an option.
“Earlier people were scared to stand up against the CPI-M, the Congress was missing as an opposition, people saw the BJP as an alternative,” he said.
In Nagaland, suspicion about the Sangh’s work was a stumbling block. Functionaries here said the Seva organisations initially had to masquerade as non-government organisations to win people’s confidence.
“Once people get acquainted with the Seva projects, they realise that bodies such as the church councils spread fear about us. We do not oppose faith, but are against forceful conversion,” said a functionary in Nagaland.
In the state where the BJP has political alliances going back decades, the Sangh’s role has been limited to ensuring that tribal people are not coerced or induced to convert.
The Sangh’s work here is kept out of the ambit of electoral politics, given the sensitivity of the state and the demand for a greater Nagalim.