Beyond ‘Brand Modi’: The secret ingredient behind BJP’s rise in Christian-dominant Nagaland

While the BJP is quick to credit every election victory to PM Narendra Modi, there was another major force that has driven the party’s rise in Nagaland in the last 10 years.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi being garlanded by BJP President J P Nadda and Union Minister Amit Shah during celebrations after the party's good performance in Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya Assembly polls, at the BJP HQ in New Delhi, Thursday, March 2, 2023. (PTI Photo/Vijay Verma)

From an insignificant entity a decade ago to emerging as the biggest force, the ascent of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the northeastern state of Nagaland is striking. To rise from a solitary win with a vote share of 1.8 per cent in 2013, to 12 seats and a vote share of 15.3 per cent in 2018 and 12 seats (it contested 20) and a vote share of 18.8 per cent in 2023 underlines a journey that can be termed nothing short of phenomenal.

More so, since the BJP has been painted by the Opposition as a “Hindutva” party, while an overwhelming majority of the population in Nagaland is Christian. While many believed it was a given since virtually the entire Opposition had been absorbed by the government since the BJP first came to power in the state in alliance with the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), the results signify that there are factors beyond the religious identity ascribed to the BJP that has fuelled its rise in Nagaland.

The ‘Modi’ factor

When the BJP registered its biggest win in Gujarat, critics were quick to point out that the triangular contest that the entry of the Aam Aadmi Party and its aggressive campaign in the state had shaped was behind the BJP posting unprecedented numbers. The case is Nagaland, however, stands in stark contrast. The BJP, which contested the election in partnership with the NDPP, was never seen as a force to reckon with a decade ago.

However, things took a dramatic turn when the NDA government came to power at the Centre with a thumping mandate in 2014. There is a combination of factors that worked in favour of the BJP since then, the Prime Minister being the biggest among them. The narratives of a “Vikas Purush” and “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas” that the BJP had managed to cultivate around him were enough to establish an instant connection between Modi and the people.

Seeds sown by Vajpayee

However, Modi’s persona wasn’t the only factor that worked in favour of the PM or the BJP for that matter. In fact, a large part of the goodwill that the PM has managed to generate in Nagaland is a result of the seeds that were sown over a decade ago by then PM Atal Bihar Vajpayee. A huge population of Nagaland still remembers Vajpayee as a leader who made a genuine effort to understand their problems and establish peace in the state.

It was under Vajpayee’s leadership during the first tenure of the NDA government that serious efforts were made to propel talks with the NSCN(I-M). Vajpayee was then seen as possibly the first national leader who took a genuine interest in initiating talks and building a rapport with Naga leaders to settle the longstanding dispute. While the talks floundered when the UPA government came to power, Modi was quick to revive the initiative and capitalise on the goodwill people already had for Vajpayee and the BJP.

Campaign focus: Peace and Development

Two factors that the BJP based much of its campaign on in Nagaland were its commitment to peace and PM Modi’s development agenda. During campaigning in the state, BJP leaders repeatedly cited the Naga Peace Accord signed under the first tenure of the Modi government to amplify the priority the Modi government has laid on bringing peace to the restive region.

The accord, signed between the Government of India and the NSCN in 2015, was aimed at ending insurgency and putting in place a framework to put peace talks in motion. While the knots of the framework and subsequent measures remain tied, the BJP has managed to successfully market its intent to bring a solution to the decades-old problem.

Soon after the election results showed the NDPP-BJP alliance retaining power in the state, leaders of the saffron camp were quick to credit the Prime Minister and his ‘Act East’ policy for the win.

“The voters of Nagaland have rewarded the party for its positive agenda and the good work done by the double-engine government of PM Modi at the Centre and Chief Minister Rio in the state, said BJP’s national spokesperson and Nagaland in-charge Nalin Kohli said on Thursday. He also pointed out that frequent visits by Modi (51 times in his tenure), and ministers from his government (more than 400 times) have ensured that infrastructure projects and various schemes are implemented effectively and on time.

“The BJP’s success in the Northeast is directly linked to Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy and the positive agenda of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas, Sabka Prayas. In Nagaland, the campaign focus was on peace and development,” he added.

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First published on: 03-03-2023 at 16:03 IST