Why the BJP is reaching out to Christians in the Northeast
Its strategy has been of stark dualism: Pursue hardline Hindutva in the heartland and adjust to local sensitivities in the periphery. Therefore, its Christian push in N-E hints that it hopes to be seen as an inclusive force.
In a distant corner of India, a new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is attempting to break through an old barrier. At a Sunday mass in one of Shillong’s oldest churches, Union minister of state for minority affairs, John Barla, is among the prominent attendees. His presence is meant to reassure the citizenry of a Christian-dominated state going to the polls that the BJP is not anti-Christian. With 75 of its 80 candidates across Meghalaya and Nagaland from the Christian community, the BJP is hoping to showcase itself as a more inclusive force. But can the party win over the hearts and minds of a community that remains suspicious of Hindutva politics?
When last month, a church in Chhattisgarh was vandalised, Meghalaya’s Christian organisations raised a red flag, calling on Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi to break his silence on what they called “the increased targeting of the Christian community”. When octogenarian Jesuit priest Stan Swamy was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and eventually died in hospital after complaints of ill-treatment, there was an angry reaction from some church bodies. When the Karnataka assembly passed an anti-conversion bill, there was condemnation from community leaders. From anti-conversion laws in BJP-ruled states to attempts made at enforcing bans on the selling and consumption of beef, it seems that the majoritarian worldview espoused by some members of the Sangh parivar is at odds with the BJP’s plank of embracing non-discriminatory politics.
The strategy so far has been to practise a politics of stark dualism: Pursue hardline Hindutva in the heartland states with groups such as the Bajrang Dal at the forefront but be more willing to adjust to local sensitivities in the periphery of the country where sheer demographics demand greater flexibility. All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi termed this strategy hypocrisy and said, “Cow is mummy for the BJP in UP but yummy in Goa and the Northeast.” But the dichotomy also reflects a pragmatic attitude in dealing with a diverse society with varied food habits. Where the BJP in a previous avatar may have been more rigid in sticking to its core ideological values, the new BJP is willing to compromise for political benefits.
In his book, Bunch of Thoughts, RSS sarsanghchalak MS Golwalkar had marked Muslims, Christians and Communists as three major internal threats to the country. “Such is the role of Christian gentlemen residing in our land today, out to demolish not only the religious and social fabric of our life but also to establish political domination in various pockets and if possible all over the land,” he wrote. The new BJP has attempted to distance itself from this view in public and reach out to Christians as part of a well-calculated approach.
This strategy appears to make a key distinction between Muslims and Christians. The sizable presence of Muslims across the country and the rise of Islamic radicalism means they are more likely to be demonised to consolidate a core Hindutva constituency. Christians, by contrast, are a much smaller community — around 28 million and 2.3% of the population as per the 2011 census — and, therefore, relatively politically insignificant and perceived as less of a threat to a dominant majority.
Secondly, Christian groups are seen to be more open to a dialogue with the BJP leadership than Muslims. In the 2022 Gujarat assembly elections, the BJP even gave a ticket to a Christian tribal leader who won against a tough opponent. In sharp contrast, the BJP refused to put up any Muslim candidate in the state. The BJP’s interaction with Syrian Christian bishops in Kerala is just as noteworthy — the attempt is to find common ground by preying on Islamophobia and shared anxieties over “love jihad”, a term used to stoke fears of religious conversion through marriage. In Goa too, the BJP, especially under late chief minister Manohar Parrikar, consciously projected its Catholic legislators.
Thirdly, there seems to be a realisation that any targeting of Christians may invite a backlash from the western world. Recall how in 2015, then United States president Barack Obama had spoken of acts of religious intolerance in India which would have shocked Mahatma Gandhi. Recall also how Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi in 2021 made it a point to hug and invite Pope Francis to India in a bid to create the right optics with the global head of the Catholic church.
Finally, there is PM Modi’s ambition to be recognised as a genuine pan-Indian leader whose appeal is not confined to the Hindi heartland or the Hindu voter. The Northeast push of the government is a crucial element in this exercise. When the PM is spotted in Khasi headgear in Meghalaya, he is identifying himself with the local customs. When he appeals for votes in the name of sabka saath, sabka vikas (inclusive development for all) credo in Nagaland, he is seeking to be judged on the basis of all-encompassing development schemes.
It is unclear just how successful the BJP’s wooing of Christian voters will be. Just a day before Barla attended the Sunday mass in Meghalaya, Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien was also holding closed door parleys with church representatives, as was a local Congress leader. The fight for the Christian vote has only just begun.
Post-script: While the Sangh parivar has often accused Christian missionary schools of religious conversion in the garb of education, what is conveniently forgotten is that a long list of BJP leaders studied in Christian-run education institutes. The distinguished alumni offer the best testimony against toxic political propaganda.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal