Jahan bhi dekho matha hi matha nazar ata hai (Wherever you see, you can only see heads and heads) was how a surprised Narendra Modi reacted while addressing a massive rally in Guwahati on 8 February, kickstarting the BJP’s General Election campaign in the Northeast. With back-to-back rallies at Imphal and Guwahati, addressing a record turnout at both venues, wooing the conflict-torn region with promises of progress and peace, Modi tried to break new ground.
An estimated 2.5 lakh people gathered at the Veterinary Science College ground in Guwahati, while 1 lakh people were present at Langjing Achouba ground in Imphal. At both venues, thousands of people queued up since morning, with many travelling more than hundreds of kilometres for a glimpse of Modi.
Souvenirs such as masks, badges and photographs sold like hot cakes. It gave the Gujarat chief minister just the right atmosphere to launch a scathing attack on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been representing Assam in the Rajya Sabha for the past 23 years.
“The Northeast is blessed with natural resources, yet the youth are unemployed; they have lost hope,” lamented Modi. “Assam has given the country its prime minister. This is a big investment by the people of Assam in favour of the Congress, but have they got any returns? If a prime minister cannot do anything for his constituency, how can he do anything for the nation? Why has the prime minister failed to develop the Northeast?”
The crowd approved with applause, but will that be enough for the BJP to make a mark in the Northeast region, which sends 25 MPs to the Lok Sabha?
In the 2009 election, the Congress won seven of the 14 seats in Assam, followed by the BJP with four seats and one each for the Bodoland People’s Front, the All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP).
Modi, who had earlier stayed and worked in Assam in various capacities for the RSS and the BJP, wants to take the Congress head-on. Tarun Gogoi has ruled the state since 2001, and the Congress has only increased its tally in the subsequent Assembly polls. The party has 78 MLAs in the 126-member Assembly. The BJP has only five MLAs.
“Nearly 3 lakh people turned up for the Guwahati rally,” says BJP spokesman Shiladitya Dev. “All of them came of their own. People in Assam and the rest of the Northeast are fed up with corruption, both in the state and at the Centre. So, they want change and see that in Narendra Modi. He has already announced his plans for the Northeast and has promised economic development based on the resources of the region. This rally is one of the largest the Gujarat chief minister has attended in this election season. This sets the tone for us to do better in Assam.”
Rupam Kashyap, an MBA student from Guwahati, was among the many youth wearing a Modi mask at the rally. Kashyap had supported the Congress since his school days, but shifted his allegiance when he saw Rahul Gandhi shying away from taking responsibility. “In Guwahati, the Congress is failing on all fronts,” he says. “The city is full of illegal construction; it has no proper civic amenities. We don’t even get clean drinking water. Modi talked about these issues. I never heard the prime minister speaking on these issues although he represents us.”
Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi was at pains to play down the success of Modi’s Mission Northeast, but the turnout at his rallies is bound to worry the Congress state unit. “The Modi wave will not work in Assam or the rest of the Northeast,” said Gogoi. “This is a media-created hype, only restricted to newspapers and television news channels. On the ground, people are with the Congress.”
The BJP has already shown signs of growing its support base in urban areas. In last year’s Guwahati Municipal Corporation polls, the BJP came second only to the Congress, winning 11 out of 31 seats, clearly suggesting that anti-incumbency is setting in among urban voters.
The Maulana Badruddin Ajmal-led AIUDF has cornered a lion’s share of the Muslim vote bank, denting the prospects of the Congress. On top of that, the AIUDF’s rise is seen as one of the reasons why Hindu votes would consolidate.
In the 2011 Assembly polls, Gogoi played the Hindutva card far better than the BJP and the AGP, but things have changed after that. The land swap deal between India and Bangladesh in which Assam will lose land and the illegal influx of migrants from Bangladesh are issues that Modi addressed at the rally.
“Did the Congress ever ask the opinion of the people in Assam before the land swap deal?” asked Modi at the rally. “It was Rajiv Gandhi who signed the Assam accord (in 1985). Neither his party nor his family has fulfilled his promise. If we come to power, we will fulfil it. We will make sure that there is proper verification.”
It was during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s reign that a separate Union ministry for the development of the Northeast was set up. The aim was to develop the region, hit by decades of ethnic insurgency, on a fast-track basis. As a result, several national projects were sanctioned by New Delhi.
“I am fed up of the Congress and corruption,” says Biren Kalita, 70, who came all the way from Nalbari to listen to Modi.
“For the first time, we saw a change in the attitude towards Assam and the Northeast when Vajpayee was the prime minister. Now we see hope in Modi. Manmohan Singh has let us down and that’s why I decided to attend the rally. I am not a BJP supporter, but I support Modi.”
In Imphal, Modi blasted the Congress-led government both at the state and the Centre on rampant corruption. “You have given the Congress 60 years. Now, give me 60 months and I will make things happen here,” said Modi, trying to mesmerise those present at the Imphal rally. “The Northeast will develop in tourism, bio-resources, agro-based industries, etc. We will make all the eight states of the Northeast economically stable with their own resources. That’s why I call them Ashta Lakshmi (eight incarnations of the goddess Lakshmi). You know that goddess Lakshmi sits on a lotus, so you need to support the lotus, BJP’s lotus.”
“It is difficult to ascertain whether this will translate into votes for the BJP, but the people have definitely turned up to see and listen to Modi,” says RK Suresh, a journalist based in Imphal. “In Manipur, people respect good orators, and Modi is one. But he remained silent on the issue of AFSPA. Perhaps, he needs to get into more details of the issues of the Northeast to strike a chord.”
The Northeast is no virgin territory for the BJP. The party once headed a government in Arunachal Pradesh; in 2001, BJP MLAs toppled the Samata Party regime in Manipur; and the lone BJP MLA is part of the NPF-led Democratic Alliance that is ruling Nagaland. So, the party enjoys some support in the Northeast and Modi has played the regional card well. But will that be enough for the party to make a dent in the 2014 General Election?