Narendra Modi’s visit last week to Northeast region in public perception is meant to give a major thrust to the development projects in the region, but the main axiom behind this move has been to make nationalism the primary election agenda in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Modi’s resolve to begin the ambitious Arunachal Frontier Highway amidst the lingering shadow of Chinese threat on the borders in the Northeast and Ladakh is a pointer to his design. Major projects have been completed in Arunachal, but the work is yet to begin in the contentious area adjoining the border. As envisaged by the UPA government in 2012, the project is a 2,000-km long road that follows the McMahon Line and will begin from Mago in Arunachal Pradesh, adjacent to Bhutan.
In the prevailing situation, with tempers running high, it is unlikely that China will not raise objection to the project in the border areas adjoining to its border. Obviously Modi government will flag nationalism to counter the Chinese action. Already China has deployed over 70,000 troops along the frontier in eastern Ladakh and continues to build infrastructure inside India-claimed lines on the strategic Depsang Plains as well as other friction points. The fact cannot be ignored that China has been “mobilising more men and machinery into the Galwan Valley and other standoff points. China is still within the India-claimed lines. China is already in control of the heights at the Galwan Valley and Pangong Lake and are in a position of huge military and tactical advantage.
The golden jubilee celebration of the North East Council for which PM went to Northeast will undoubtedly provide a new platform for the NEC to deliver even better in the days to come and to spearhead more development initiatives as has been done effectively in the last five decades across the eight north eastern states.
Tautology with slight difference is the trait of functioning of Narendra Modi and once again he resorted to it at the NEC celebration. In order to make his image ingrained in the minds of the people of the north east he used numerical figure 8 frequently. The states under north east are better known as the seven sisters, but Modi referred them as 8 states of the region and christened them as Asht Lakshmi. He pledged that the government should work on 8 foundation pillars for its development, which are Peace, Power, Tourism, 5G connectivity, Culture, Natural farming, Sports, and Potential. What was interesting to watch was Amit Shah adding yet another 8, by emphasising that the region marched ahead on the path of peace and development during eight years of BJP rule under Narendra Modi.
Presenting Modi’s larger than life image, Shah claimed; “Modi is like a great banyan tree under whose shade, the region, Northeast, Assam, is on its path of fulfilling the development goals set by him”. Usually Modi and Shah decry the gains and good works of the previous governments. But making a departure, they hailed the work done by NEC, set up in 1972, during the rule of Indira Gandhi.
Taking a leaf out of the former PM Manmohan Singh’s observation that the Northeast is gateway to South-East Asia, Modi too asserted that NEC can become a centre for the development of the entire region. He however tried to distance from Singh’s announcement by saying that the government has gone beyond the conversion of the ‘Look East’ policy to ‘Act East’, and now its policy is ‘Act Fast for Northeast’ and ‘Act First for Northeast.’
Elections to the assemblies to states Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland will be held in 2023. But to look at the slew of development offers from the electoral perspective would be an act of naiveté. It needed a holistic approach and look. For quite some time both the leaders have been focussing on the region. Modi said for a long time, the parties that were in power had thought of Divide for Northeast, and his government came with the intention of DevINE (Prime Minister’s Development Initiative for North East Region).
Modi’s move made it explicit that BJP and RSS have been trying to reach out to the people of the region and get well entrenched. The operation of the RSS in the region makes it abundantly clear that it has enormous importance for it. Out of the 25 Lok Sabha seats in the eight northeastern states, highest number of 14 seats are with the BJP, while only four seats belong to the Congress and one is held by the Maulana Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front, a Muslim-based party in Assam. The remaining five seats are held by NDA constituents Naga People’s Front (NPF) in Manipur, Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) in Nagaland, National People’s Party (NPP) in Meghalaya, Mizo National Front (MNF) in Mizoram, and Sikkim Krantikari Morcha in Sikkim.
The region has massive significance for the RSS and BJP. They have been using the region as the laboratory to experiment with their ideological and political issues and agenda. For them the small population of the region does not matter at all. The northeastern region consists of only 8 per cent of the country’s total geographical area and 4 per cent of the country’s population. The region shares borders with China, Myanmar, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Tribals consist around 28 per cent of the population, who are the overwhelming majority in Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh.
Though the RSS has huge network in the Hindi heartland. But it cannot rely on the support bases it has in the states in the area. The support bases also face the threat of cracks based on the class line. True enough the RSS leadership is wary of this class contradictions more than the challenges from the socialist and secular forces. Besides this the support from the BJP rules states in the north India has not been satisfactory. In contrast the BJP led state governments of northeast have been openly supporting the RSS’s activities. The BJP turncoats have proved to be of more value and dedicated than the original saffronites.
The region has quite less population of Hindus. According to the 2011 Census, 34 per cent of Assam’s population is Muslim, while five other North-East States have large Christian populations; Nagaland (87.93 per cent) Mizoram (87.16 per cent), Meghalaya (74.59 per cent), Manipur (41.29 per cent) and Arunachal Pradesh (30.26 per cent). But sheer pragmatism and devotion of the RSS cadres has turned it into a formidable force in the region. Young people in the Northeast are actively engaged in the RSS frontal organisations like Ekal Vidyalaya, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Rashtra Sevika Samiti, Vidya Bharati, and Vivekananda Kendra.
With BJP winning the elections, RSS will get the right opportunity to complete its task. It will promote nationalist conduct in the region, using issues such as ‘illegal’ migration from Bangladesh and cow smuggling. Yet another factor that immensely helped RSS to spread in the region has been internal strife among tribal communities. Frustrated with terrorist activities the people are hankering for a better future. This situation is being exploited by the RSS and BJP to the hilt. With this agenda in hand RSS has been able to align their demands and claims.
Taking advantage of the prevailing political situation, the BJP is using Citizenship Act Amendment to deepen its anchor, reinforce and spread Hindutva in the region. The RSS and BJP design is not faced with much severe opposition from the local population as they are unable to relate them with their agenda. Moreover the move to grant citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindus is aimed at polarising the state and diverting attention from the lack of development. Decades of hard work, behind the scenes, by RSS workers have laid the ground for the BJP’s electoral successes in the region. In northeast the RSS does not raise the issue of beef as it is the diet for a large population.
Historically, the region has been cut off geographically and culturally from the rest of India. RSS shakhas have been trying to bring them nearer on the plea of common Indian identity. The daily routine includes morning and evening prayers which include singing RSS prescribed patriotic songs and devotional songs praising Hindu gods and goddesses. Senior leaders of the RSS point out that it is for the first time efforts were made to carry out an expansion plan in the North-East with a special emphasis on the youth. BJP and RSS will like to ensure their hegemony over NE region through the mission of the Prime Minister before the 2024 polls. (IPA Service)