BJP comes up against a cultural challenge in the North-East

Jowai/Sohiong/Shillong: Poll-bound Meghalaya has thrown up a piquant problem for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP): reconciling the party’s Hindutva ideology with the hill state’s food and lifestyle that are defined by tribal and Christian cultures.

While Christians are in a minority at the national level, accounting for 2.3% of India’s population, they are the majority religion in Meghalaya, comprising nearly three quarters of the state’s population.

Resolving this conflict will be the key to the BJP succeeding with its plans to expand its electoral footprint in the North-East. At the moment the party is in power in three states in the region—Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur.

The common refrain among voters in several constituencies across Khasi and Jaintia tribal regions in Meghalaya is that the BJP is a “Hindu party”. The recent notification by the centre prohibiting the sale of cattle, including buffaloes for slaughter at animal markets, has only further stoked concerns. To be sure, the Union government is considering revising this notification.

“We are Christians and we have been living freely in our state as per our tradition and culture. I cannot assess the BJP’s work at the centre, but it is not an option for us in Meghalaya. We eat beef, we follow a certain lifestyle and we feel BJP will bring about a lot of change. They have already turned one of our biggest festivals, Christmas, into Good Governance Day,” said Shankilang Mangiang, a 28-year-old man from Sohiong constituency who works at a motor spare parts shop.

According to the consumer expenditure survey by NSSO (2011-12), Meghalaya is the largest beef and buff eating state with more than 80% of the population consuming it.

The three North-eastern states which go to polls this year—Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram—are all Christian majority, according to the 2011 Census.

As the BJP struggles to make inroads among the major communities in states like Meghalaya, it is often the immigrants who form their support base.Another voter like Suresh Kumar Singh, a 45-year-old cloth shop owner in Jowai who traces his roots to Bihar.

“Earlier, all these years, we voted for Congress but it neither takes care of the indigenous people nor outsiders like us. This time, we will support BJP. We know that in a Christian dominated state like this, they won’t win but we are hopeful that they can ally with regional parties and form the government,” he added.

“There is a feeling among voters here that BJP is not a pro-minority party and that it will not encourage the eating habits, lifestyle and world view of people from Meghalaya. Currently, they may not be strong enough to form a government on their own but they could play a key role in any post-poll scenario,” said Susmita Sengupta, associate professor of political science, North East Hill University, Shillong. She added that BJP is “no longer seen as an outsider” and is drawing support in constituencies which have a high non-tribal population.

“We have said it repeatedly we do not interfere in people’s eating habits. People eat what they like. We are not anti-Christians. Christians vote for us, we have senior Christian leaders in our party,” said Nalin Kohli, senior BJP leader and party in-charge of Meghalaya.livemint