Free and subsidised trips to Jerusalem, appeals to not vote for those who want to ‘pierce the heart of Jesus Christ’, alleged circulation of hate posters on religious lines, and speeches laced with theological rhetoric. For the first time in Nagaland, a predominantly Christian majority state, religion has emerged as major poll plank for the 13th Nagaland Legislative Assembly elections. And the religious pitch is getting shrill every passing day.
The BJP’s Phek unit recently lodged an FIR at Pfursero police station, under Phek district, against violation of the election code of conduct. The BJP Phek unit president alleged that “some political party men have launched hate poster campaign” against the 17 A/C BJP candidate Kevechutso Duolo. The party was referring to posters of Hindu goddesses and Hindutva propaganda pasted on the gate of a local church and other areas.
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), considered the parent organisation of the BJP, has been finding mention in the campaign speeches of non-BJP parties, barring BJP ally NDPP. And references to the BJP as a communal party has become the highlight of speeches, particularly in constituencies where the BJP has fielded its candidates.
BJP leaders have been engaged in a war of words with NPF president, Dr. Shürhozelie Liezietsu, a veteran politician and a hardcore regionalist. Liezietsu in a campaign rally urged Nagas “not to gamble their faith with politics” by voting for BJP and termed the February 27 election as an “acid test for the Nagas to preserve their identity and faith.”
In response, BJP said “all candidates are Christians” and that the party remained committed to protect and defend their faith at all costs. Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, who is also in-charge of Nagaland, joined the league of leaders to defend his party and declared that he would take full responsibility if there was any kind of atrocity against Christians. Seeking to blunt the attacks on the party, BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav lauded Christian missionaries saying, “It was due to the sacrifices of the missionaries that the people of this region stand tall today.”
While the shadow of BJP has been dogging Nagaland politics in the wake of internal tussle within the ruling NPF, the threat perception to minorities from the saffron party, Christians in particular, has been building up in Nagaland with reports of violence against the community in various parts of the country. With the Nagaland Baptist Churches Council (NBCC), which represents 1,500 Baptist churches, getting involved in politics to launch a direct attack on BJP, the talk of communalism and saffronisation became more pronounced. Political observers say that while the BJP’s political rivals in Nagaland see political opportunity in the NBCC’s appeal against the national party, the damage to the party’s image especially in Christian-dominated states like Nagaland and Meghalaya, had already been done long before the election dates were announced.
Another fallout of the NBCC’s call to protect Christian faith was the announcement of subsidised and free trips to Jerusalem for the senior Naga electorate. Congress announced subsidised trips to the ‘holy land’ and BJP came out to better the offer by offering free trips.
Meanwhile, politics over religion in the Nagaland elections has not been limited to the BJP’s pro-Hindutva leanings. Chief Minister TR Zeliang, in a campaign speech at Kohima, accused Lok Sabha MP Neiphiu Rio, the star candidate of NDPP which is BJP’s ally, of spreading rumours about him being a follower of Heraka, a RSS activist, and a Hindu to mislead the Christian voters. Zeliang asserted that his family members were the first converts who had sacrificed to make their village hundred per cent Christian. Heraka is the indigenous religion of Zeliangrong community. The incumbent chief minister belongs to the Zeliang community.
In Nagaland, votes are cast more on the lines of individual candidates, village and clan affiliations than by parties’ symbols and ideologies. But this time around, the Lotus symbol of the BJP has created unease among the Naga electorate. BJP has been part of the alliance led by the ruling NPF since 2003, but its clout in the state politics has multiplied manifolds with the party ruling in the Centre.