The BJP launched an intensive outreach programme targeting the majority Christian population in Meghalaya where Assembly polls are slated for 27 February.
The 360-degree programme involved reaching out to Church leaders, prominent civil society members, traditional tribal institutions and others in a concerted bid to dispel the notion that the BJP is a ‘Hindi-Hindu’-only party.
This initiative was launched soon after the 2018 Assembly elections when a comprehensive SWOT analysis of the party in Meghalaya was undertaken. The BJP had made its debut in the Christian-majority tribal state in 2018 by winning two Assembly seats and garnering 9.6 per cent of the votes cast.
“Our performance was very encouraging because even though we won two seats, our vote share was respectable and gave us hope for a lot of improvement. It was just two percent less than the vote share of the (UDP), a strong regional party, which bagged six seats,” state BJP president Ernest Mawrie told Swarajya.
A thorough analysis of the party’s booth-wise performance in the Assembly elections and feedback received from workers and others indicated that the party suffered from a negative perception among many Christians who viewed the BJP as a ‘Hindi-Hindu’-only party.
The BJP’s central leadership felt that concrete steps were needed to dispel this ‘false impression’ and correct it. It was decided that all BJP leaders and Union Ministers visiting Meghalaya would highlight the development initiatives of the Modi government.
It was also decided to deploy members of the BJP’s Minority Morcha to hold intensive discussions with Church leaders, civil society members and heads of traditional institutions. In Meghalaya, this outreach has been spearheaded by Elizabeth Matthews Nongbri, a national executive member of the saffron party’s Minority Morcha.
“I met the Catholic Bishop in Shillong and handed over a four-page letter where I had explained that the BJP’s sole focus is inclusive development of the country and all sections of society. My letter attempts to dispel the misconceptions about my party,” Nongbri, whose father John Matthews was an Englishman from Norfolk, UK, and a World War II veteran and her mother a Khasi.
The response from the Bishop was “very encouraging”. “His only concern was the alleged attacks on Churches and Christians in other parts of the country. I told him that while there are miscreants in every community, any breach of the law has always been dealt with very sternly by BJP governments in states as well as the Union Government. The Bishop was satisfied,” said Nongri.
She also reached out to leaders of other Christian denominations in Meghalaya. “I spoke extensively to many Church leaders and elders, and have been able to convince them that the BJP is not anti-Christian. The fact that our only agenda is the country’s inclusive development impressed them,” she said.
BJP leaders also held extensive discussions with leaders of traditional institutions like Rangbah Shnongs and Nokmas (heads of traditional councils in villages and urban localities in Khasi & Jaintia Hills and Garo Hills respectively), and addressed their concerns about the BJP.
“This process of allaying fears among our fellow Christians about the BJP being a ‘Hindu’ party and correcting misconceptions about our party started a few years ago and have borne fruit. Today, no one in Meghalaya looks upon the BJP as a ‘Hindu’ party and people of my state have accepted the fact that the BJP is a national party with development and welfare for all being its only agenda,” BJP MLA Sanbor Shullai told Swarajya.
Nongbri also held discussions with leaders of influential organisations like the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU). “Everyone was very receptive to the points I made about the BJP and admitted that they had harboured a wrong notion about the party. They were convinced that the BJP stood for inclusive development of all sections,” said Nongbri.
BJP MLA Alexander Laloo Hek, who won from Pynthorumkhrah (which falls within state capital Sillong) in 2018, told Swarajya that the outreach programme has been a huge success.
“In Meghalaya today, the BJP has as much acceptance among the people, including tribals and all Christians, as any other regional party and the Congress. It is the Trinamool which is looked upon as an ‘outsider’ party,” he said.
Proof of the BJP’s wide acceptance lies in the fact that a number of MLAs, leaders and workers from other parties, including the National People’s Party (NPP), the UDP, Congress and even the Trinamool, have joined the BJP over the past few months.
The latest to join the saffron party is Assembly Speaker Martin M Danggo who was elected from Raniikor in South West Khasi Hills in 2018 on an NPP ticket. The NPP led the Meghalaya Development Alliance (MDA) government that was in power in the state since 2018.
Danggo’s switch to the BJP was a setback and an embarrassment for the NPP since it had already renominated him as its candidate from Ranikor. Danggo met Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma in Guwahati Saturday (January 28) and announced his decision to join the BJP.
His statement after announcing his entry into the BJP was telling. “I am convinced that the BJP is the only party that can bring about development in Meghalaya. The BJP’s only agenda is development, peace and prosperity and I want to serve the people of Ranikor and the entire state by being part of the BJP,” he said.
Danggo’s entry into the BJP was welcomed by people of his constituency, including local pastors and Church elders.
BJP leaders told Swarajya that their campaign meetings are blessed by local pastors. Many Church leaders have issued appeals in favour of the BJP. “We (the BJP) are no longer looked upon with suspicion and distrust. People of Meghalaya have come to accept us unconditionally and without any misgivings,” said Hek.
“We used to think that the BJP is a party for Hindus only. But over the last eight years, we have seen the development that the country has witnessed. India’s development and progress has benefited all sections of society. So the impression about BJP being a ‘Hindu party is completely wrong. We were fed this misconception by the BJP’s political rivals,” said Peter B Shullai, a prominent elder of the Presbyterian Church in Jowai.
The Rangbah Shnong of an affluent and almost exclusively tribal locality in north Shillong told Swarajya that the earlier impression of the BJP has changed after BJP leaders reached out to him and other prominent residents of the area and explained the party’s agenda to them.
“We have seen many governments. It is time to give the BJP a chance. They (the BJP) are interested only in development and are definitely not anti-Christian,” he said.
Similar views were expressed by a wide cross-section of tribals across the state that Swarajya spoke to.
Interestingly, many BJP leaders who are practising Christians, including Nongbri, concede that Hindus have been subjugated under Islamic rule and then British rule. This subjugation of Hindus has continued after Independence and the BJP, says Nongbri and others, is right in “rectifying a great historical wrong”.
Nongbri, in her letter to Church leaders, wrote: “We are probably the only nation to have declared in our constitution that we are secular. A country’s official religion is primarily a legacy of its history. Hinduism, which has been our historical legacy, has been trampled, victimised & desecrated under 1000 years of subjugation by Islamic rule, and for 200 years under British rule. The horrors of this victimisation on society, culture and religion, are too numerous to recall,
“After independence, the political class continued to suppress the Hindus to gain votes and remain in power. So now, by reviving Hinduism the BJP is only rectifying a great historical wrong. Is that not right?
“Our PM leads a progressive party, a party for the future, intent only on development; transparent functioning; emphasis on work culture; use of technology; responsibility & accountability,” her letter read.
Meghalaya’s Christian BJP leaders are, thus, unapologetic about BJP’s espousal of the Hindu cause, but emphasise that this does not translate into antagonism towards any other religion. This stand has, to the BJP’s comfort, been accepted by Meghalaya’s tribals.
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