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‘Interference by a religion’ set back NDA in Northeast — Sarma’s remarks on Christians trigger row

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New Delhi: While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been making efforts to reach out to the Christian community, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief minister’s remarks seemingly aimed at Christians has triggered a row in the aftermath of the just-concluded Lok Sabha elections.

Why did BJP and its allies lose ground in three states in the Northeast? Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said he had reason to believe a “particular religion” was to blame for the poor showing in Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Sarma set off a political storm by saying that “a particular religion openly went against our (NDA) governments in those states”. He added that this was therefore not a “political defeat”.

In the just concluded general election, BJP and its allies lost four of the five Lok Sabha seats in these three states, including four to the Congress.

In Manipur, BJP’s Thounaojam Basanta Kumar Singh, a minister in the N. Biren Singh-led state government, lost the Meitei-dominated Inner Manipur seat to Angomcha Bimol Akoijam of the Congress. The Congress also wrested the tribal-dominated Outer Manipur seat from the Naga People’s Front (NPF) which had outside support from the BJP.

Similarly, in Meghalaya, sitting MP from Tura Agatha Sangma of BJP ally National People’s Party (NPP) lost to Saleng Sangma of the Congress.

And in the sole seat in Nagaland, Congress’s S. Supongmeren Jamir defeated Dr Chumben Murry of BJP ally Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP).

During the assembly elections in Nagaland last year, the Nyishi Baptist Church Council (NBCC) had asked Christians in the state to vote against ‘communal forces. In its message to voters, the NBCC had asked “members in all parts of the state to exercise judiciously their votes in the coming Assembly elections for the good of the state by choosing leaders who would listen to people and respond effectively to their anxieties and needs”.

It also asked the community to “pray that the communal forces working against Christians in India will be brought to justice”.

Addressing reporters at Assam BJP office Wednesday, Sarma, who is also convener of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), blamed “a particular religion” for this setback. Religious leaders from that community usually do not interfere in politics, he said, adding that this time, “for whatever reason, they interfered, even in Assam also; they worked openly against the NDA”.

According to the 2011 Census, Christians form 87 percent, 74 percent and 40 percent of the population in Nagaland, Meghalaya and Manipur, respectively.

Drawing parallels to a hypothetical situation, Sarma also said, “If tomorrow, all the Shankaracharyas sit, and say that Himanta must lose, how can I fight with all the four Shankaracharyas?”

Pointing out that BJP or its allies are in power in all states in the Northeast, barring Mizoram and Sikkim, he said, “Initially people told us we won Northeast by defection. But with BJP returning to power for a third term in Arunachal, we have shown that we win by development and not defection.” 

He also claimed that in Assam, a state with 40 percent Muslim voters, it is an achievement for the BJP-led NDA to bag 11 of 14 seats.

Reacting to Sarma’s remarks that “a particular religion” set back the NDA in the three states, Congress leader Gaurav Gogoi took to X (formerly Twitter) to term the remarks “irresponsible and reckless”.

“He does not have the maturity to accept the responsibility for the losses of the NDA in Nagaland, Meghalaya and Manipur. I appeal to the Chief Ministers of the respective states to publicly condemn the statement.  Together we must preserve the unique identity of the Northeast,” he wrote.

 

In the run-up to the elections, the BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi mounted an outreach programme to court Christian voters. Modi hosted leaders of the Christian community for Christmas, made mention of his 2021 meeting with Pope Francis and also the work he did ‘for the community’ during his days in Gujarat in public meetings.

On the occasion of Christmas last year, he also said that Jesus “lived the ideals of kindness and service… he worked on making an inclusive society that had justice for everyone… these ideals are working as a guiding light for the development journey of our country”.

Though this outreach had been underway for a few years, it took a prominent shape when Modi met a delegation of Christian community leaders during a visit to Kerala last April. Among those he met were the head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, the head of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church and the head of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church of India, besides a senior priest of the Latin Catholic Church, among others.

The BJP also organised a ‘Sneha Yatra’ in Kerala last December in an attempt to woo the state’s influential Christian community. It was a result of these efforts that BJP managed to win its first Lok Sabha seat in Kerala — Thrissur.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)


Also Read: How long-decayed insurgent groups are growing across Northeast as Manipur conflict drags on


 





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