Prime Minister Narendra Modi will kick off the BJP’s campaign in North East from Shillong’s Polo Grounds in Meghalaya tomorrow. BJP National General Secretary Ram Madhav is already present in the Meghalaya capital with a host of other BJP leaders in preparation for the rally, and to push hard on the BJP’s chances in unchartered territory – two of the North-eastern states that will go to polls early next year, Meghalaya and Nagaland – are entirely Christian states. The third, Tripura, has been dominated by the Left for decades, and is the only state in the country where there will be a direct face-off between the Right and the Left.
The BJP is pushing to gain critical ground in Meghalaya – where political analysts say anti-incumbency is at an all- time high because of the allegedly unpopular Congress chief minister Mukul Sangma, although it is equally true that the Christian-majority state will not be as pliable to the BJP as Assam and Manipur have been.
Both Assam and Manipur, like most other North-eastern states have been Congress bastions. Assam moved into the BJP’s camp last year when the BJP promised to curb illegal Bangladeshi immigration, and its large Hindu population bought into that assurance. In Meghalaya as well, the BJP will be raising the issue of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants (Meghalaya shares a 443-km- long border with Bangladesh), but the fact remains that the issue has not been as big a concern in this state as it has been in Assam.
BJP insiders in Meghalaya remain optimistic. They believe they are the front-runners, believing that regional parties are fed up with the Congress party. This has prompted Ram Madhav to call for a “rainbow coalition” of all non-Congress parties in either a pre-poll or post-poll alliance. But political analysts say the BJP is unlikely to garner more than 5-6 seats in the 60-seat assembly.
There are a couple of reasons for this, the most important being the “BJP-RSS- Hindu right wing phobia” that seems to be a thread that runs through the minds of the predominantly Christian electorate. An analyst has recently told me that many regional parties are hesitant to join hands with the BJP before the elections for this very reason. The banning of beef fed into this BJP-phobia, although the BJP has categorically denied that it is banned in Meghalaya, and the rest of the beef-eating North East. A BJP leader in Meghalaya has gone on to say that the BJP is not against legal beef shops, only against illegal ones which run without permits. Certainly, this is an issue the Congress is likely to raise and use to its advantage.
The BJP camp, moreover, maintains that demonetization and GST have had absolutely no detrimental effect in the small north-eastern state, but local journalists and analysts aver that these two policy decisions will make it difficult for the party to gain ground. This may be the reason why, despite a number of leaders having deserted the Congress ahead of the elections, only one notable name, former Congress minister A.L.Hek, has joined the BJP.
Thousands of residents are expected at Modi’s rally tomorrow, a fact acknowledged by the BJP’s detractors as well. But these critics insist that the throngs are unlikely to translate into actual votes. Modi’s rally, even if it doesn’t sway the electorate, will definitely enthuse the BJP workers and supporters to go out in to the field and work for the campaign, to try and convince an unconvinced electorate to give them a chance. In any case, Meghalaya has had a history of hung assemblies and hastily stitched together patchwork governments. If the BJP does manage to dislodge an already unpopular Congress government, it will only be with the help of regional players. And that will most likely happen after the elections are over.
Watch this space for a new set of political permutations and combinations, in which the BJP makes new promises to the North-East even if this means making a total about-turn to the promises it has made to several North Indian states. So it may ban beef in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, or promote it in Meghalaya and Nagaland with equal panache. The BJP has certainly learnt to attempt the art of the impossible these last three years in power. If the Congress wants to retain at least a part of the North-East, it must match the energy of the BJP. As Rahul Gandhi takes over the helm of India’s grand old party, just as the Prime Minister speaks to the assembled crowd in Shillong, it must also plan to reinvent itself.