Polls in Nagaland, Lessons from Punjab
Nagaland's Baptist Church's anti-RSS Stance, a la Akali Dal-SGPC’s anti-Congress rhetoric. Will it succeed?
- S Pal
Nagaland's Baptist Church's anti-RSS Stance, a la Akali Dal-SGPC’s anti-Congress rhetoric. Will it succeed?



Nagaland is Christian country, and Christians as a minority in India are very suspicious of the rise of the Hindutva. On the 27th of this month, Nagaland is going to elections, and BJP, a party of resurgent Hindutva, is making a major play for power.
How is that possible?

The answers, for many political pundits looking at Nagaland, lay in understanding the political penetration that the BJP managed to achieve in Punjab.

"We want to understand how is it that a party like the Akali Dal in Punjab, which claimed to represent the Sikh minority in India and which fought a valiant struggle for minority rights and for an independent identity of the Sikhs, could tie up with the Hindutva-spouting BJP and found acceptability among the Sikhs?" a senior journalist who has worked with a number of prominent Nagaland newspapers said.

Much of the political rhetoric in Nagaland today matches what Punjab saw over the years, and is still experiencing. The incessant Akali Dal line of "Congress is the enemy of the Sikhs" finds a reflection in the Church-backed statements in Nagaland which project the BJP as an anathema to the Christian community.

But just as tying up with a predominantly Sikh party like the Akali Dal made it possible for the BJP to find a foothold in Punjab, the saffron's success in even more predominantly single-religion state in the northeast has surprised political pundits everywhere.
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"We read statements of yore that came from the Akali ranks and we can then guess what will come out of Naga leaders' mouths," another Nagaland journalist said, recalling Sukhbir Singh Badal's statements that alluded to the hope that once Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister, he will send truckloads of money to Punjab.
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Over 90% of the population of Nagaland comprises Christians, including Catholics, Christian Revivalists and followers of the Assembly of God. Baptists form almost 75% of the population. 

The Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC), a religious body of the church in Nagaland that is much more powerful than the SGPC in Punjab, has issued a missive signed by NBCC general secretary Reverend Dr Zelhou Keyho. In Nagaland, his word carries more weight than the Akal Takht jathedar's carries in Punjab.

"The Hindutva movement in India has become unprecedentedly strong and invasive in the last few years with the BJP, the political wing of the RSS, in power. This fact cannot be denied, no matter how hard you try to convince the innocents. You also cannot deny that the party in power at the Centre is working tooth and nail to make its presence known and seen in Nagaland, the frontline of the Christian majority state in the country. Have you ever seriously questioned their intention? If you have not, do not be fooled,” the NBCC said.

Clearly, this is the church making a direct intervention in the election campaign. 
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"Even when the Sikh clergy had declared the RSS the enemy number one of the Sikh community, we made sure that the BJP is not seen as joining issue with the Takht jathedars….a similar strategy is in place in Nagaland. Politics is a game of spoils of power and chips will fall in the right places very soon.”
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Such is the power of the NBCC that the missive has been published by all English language newspapers such as the Morung Express, Nagaland Post and others.

Anger against the BJP runs deep in Nagaland and there has been much talk about the Centre declaring Good Governance Day and Digital India Day, respectively, on Christmas and Good Friday.

How, then, is the BJP hoping to not only make a mark in Nagaland but also to form a government? "Just as it did so in Punjab," responded the journalist from Nagaland.
 
In the past, the church in Nagaland had some objections to the tie ups that the ruling Naga People's Front had with the BJP, but this time, the BJP has gone all out with a tie-up with NDPP. 

"We read statements of yore that came from the Akali ranks and we can then guess what will come out of Naga leaders' mouths," another Nagaland journalist said, recalling Sukhbir Singh Badal's statements that alluded to the hope that once Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister, he will send truckloads of money to Punjab.

The BJP has decided to duck and not respond, and is instead trying to pitch the BJP-NDPP tie up as an economic argument. Nagaland has little revenue of its own and the Centre provides more than 90% of the state's needs. Also, the BJP went in to bring into its fold prominent regional faces of Nagaland politics to mitigate the negative impact that the church propaganda might have on their electoral prospects.

Besides, the BJP, which is fielding 20 candidates, along with 40 of the NDPP, has decided that all its nominees will be Christians.
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Unlike the SGPC, the Baptist NBCC is not a toothless organisation and its writ runs strong. Its statement will be read out in churches across Nagaland coming Sunday. The Christian leadership may actually adopt a more active role in politics "much like what Punjab saw in the aftermath of cases of sacrilege when Sikh religious preachers were seen active in the political field.”
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The BJP leaders in Delhi said they have advised the Nagaland state unit to avoid direct confrontation with the Church, going by their experience of avoiding any controversy with the Akal Takht. "Even when the Sikh clergy had declared the RSS the enemy number one of the Sikh community, we made sure that the BJP is not seen as joining issue with the Takht jathedars….a similar strategy is in place in Nagaland. Politics is a game of spoils of power and chips will fall in the right places very soon,” said a senior BJP leader.

Meanwhile, the Church is keeping up a strong anti-BJP stance, and its pitch is more in the nature of a Dal Khalsa or a Simranjit Singh Mann than an Akali Dal spokesman. "We have to stay a little below the rhetorical peak and that leaves enough room for the radical anti-BJP element to hog the shrill space. Soon, the shrill is seen as the fringe and the BJP will be seen as more mature and serious political player,” said a source close to Ram Madhav, the BJP’s points man in crafting its Nagaland strategy.

So, even as the NBCC talks about pastors, evangelists and missionaries being "dragged openly in the streets, harassed and insulted” and the "worship places being burnt down and believers harassed,” the BJP is able to stand firm with NDPP support, taking on the chin the propaganda that "God must be weeping when Naga politicians are running after those who seek to destroy Christianity in India and our land.”

Unlike the SGPC, the NBCC is not a toothless organisation and its writ runs strong. There is a possibility that the statement of the NBCC will be read out in churches across Nagaland coming Sunday, and that the Christian leadership may actually adopt a more active role in politics, "much like what Punjab saw in the aftermath of cases of sacrilege when Sikh religious preachers were seen active in the political field.”

Last Sunday, thousands of devout Christians left their church after the sermon, clutching a four-page booklet that listed the prayers a devout should perform. These included a prayer for the sick, a prayer for the children about to appear in school and college examinations, a prayer for the election, a prayer for the clean election campaign, a prayer for the NBCC and other church organisations, a prayer for all the election candidates so that they prove worthy of God and men. Also included, for good measure, was a prayer for officials performing election duty.

The BJP and the RSS are counting on the fact that the elections in Nagaland are more in the form of contests between personalities and less about manifestos or ideologies of political parties. What matters is the tribe, village and individual. As for religion, all candidates are usually Christians.

That could blunt the Baptist church’s attack on the BJP. "God must be weeping when Naga politicians are running after those who seek to destroy Christianity in India and in our land,” the NBCC has said. But the people of Nagaland will only see a Christian fighting against a Christian, and that will take care of the NBCC propaganda, believe the BJP strategists.
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Strategically, the BJP in the state never refers to the RSS. Instead, it has taken a leaf from Modi’s book who, instead of responding to an Akhlaq or a Pehlu Khan or a Najib question, talks about development.
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As for the RSS, it sees the inroads being made by the BJP in Nagaland as part of the strategy for the three Christian dominated states of Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram. The BJP saw itself pushed to the backfoot in both Nagaland and Meghalaya on the issue of beef and its relationship with the Christian minority. 

Sealing a political alliance with the regional Naga party, the NDPP, has emboldened the BJP. Strategically, the BJP in the state never refers to the RSS. Instead, it has taken a leaf from Modi’s book who, instead of responding to an Akhlaq or a Pehlu Khan or a Najib question, talks about development. 

"We have been directed to talk about roads, electricity and scholarships for students,” said a senior BJP leader.

Meanwhile, the Congress is finding itself a little lost, but remains focussed in its attacks on the RSS. Lok Sabha MP Gaurav Gogoi, the Congress’ observer for Nagaland elections, said the RSS-backed BJP is manipulating democracy and constitutional values. "Last Christmas was the first time that the Rashtrapati Bhavan did not hear Christmas carols,” he said. It is a point even the NBCC had missed.

Meet Y Patton, formerly home minister of Nagaland and now a leader of the BJP. Many youth from his area Rephyim in Nagaland’s Wokha district, are desirous of joining the security forces. People in his area care little about his party and want a good leader, a sentiment that the BJP well understands. 

The area now has water supply, electrification, a primary healthcare centre, two government schools and a private Catholic school — enough to ensure that the NBCC’s anti-BJP rhetoric will not cut much ice.
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In Punjab, out of power Badals have been toying with the idea of going back to the panth but not wholeheartedly. That is because objective conditions on the ground have changed far too much for the strategy to bear certain fruit. In Nagaland, the Baptist church is to soon find out that a similar parallel exists with Punjab.
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As Ipsita Chakravarty explained in an article in Scroll.in, Naga communitarian forms of government see each village virtually as a sovereign republic. "Even though wider tribal networks have now been built, almost every village remains distinct, welcoming outsiders through high, steepled gates, and village loyalties run deep. Politicians in the state, however, claim their supporters vote individually and only a few villages still make collective electoral choices.”
 
Powerful leaders carry their vote banks even as they switch parties. Y Patton, for example, won on a BJP ticket in 2008, a Congress ticket in 1998, as Naga People’s Front man in 2013, every time because the Lotha tribe votes followed him. 

The resource-crunched northeastern states of India have often looked askance at Delhi. In 2016, Assam opted for the BJP after three stints with the Congress. Manipur made the same choice last year. Now, Nagaland is looking for some peace and development. Delhi, it knows, can ensure peace, as well as the lack of it. As for development, that is a slogan still patented by the BJP.

In Punjab, out of power Badals have been toying with the idea of going back to the Panth but not wholeheartedly. That is because objective conditions on the ground have changed far too much for the strategy to bear certain fruit. In Nagaland, the Baptist church is to soon find out that a similar parallel exists with Punjab.

It is time for the regional parties and forces to chisel a new strategy to deal with the all engulfing influence of the RSS and the BJP. The saffron is successful because it has been evolving with time, and has many forms and faces, with an option to put out just the right one for the occasion. The Akalis need to come out of the Congress is the enemy of the Sikhs unilinear rhetoric, just as Nagas need to shun BJP as anti-Christian. Complex situations need nuanced responses, from Kohima to Amritsar.
 

Disclaimer : PunjabToday.in and other platforms of the Punjab Today group strive to include views and opinions from across the entire spectrum, but by no means do we agree with everything we publish. Our efforts and editorial choices consistently underscore our authors' right to the freedom of speech. However, it should be clear to all readers that individual authors are responsible for the information, ideas or opinions in their articles, and very often, these do not reflect the views of PunjabToday.in or other platforms of the group. Punjab Today does not assume any responsibility or liability for the views of authors whose work appears here.

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