BJP’s national general secretary Shri Ram Madhav is quite hopeful that Eastern India together with North East (NE) states is going to add a substantial number of seats to BJP’s kitty in the forthcoming general elections. In an exclusive interview to Organiser editor Prafulla Ketkar and Chief News Coordinator Dr Pramod Kumar in New Delhi. “The central narrative in NE is no longer what it used to be ten or five years back—insurgency, terrorism, poverty, backwardness. Aloofness is no longer a story. The story now is about developmental boom and Indianness,” he told Organiser. Excerpts:
Despite some troubles like Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, etc, the BJP has ensured alliance with various partners in NE states. What has basically brought all the allies to the NDA fold?
Firstly, in the NE, we have had a very strong alliance for the last several years. That has helped us in forming governments in all the states of NE. In different states, we have different partners, but together we could make the NE ‘Congress Mukt’. Out of seven north eastern states, there is not a single state where Congress is in power. In Assam, Arunachal, Tripura and Manipur it is the BJP-led government, and in Nagaland and Meghalaya, it is our partner-led government. So, the alliances in NE have been strong for at least three-four years. There were some problems in the last few months essentially because of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB). Because of certain important local factors, some of our alliance partners, who have been our governance partners also, expressed strong reservation. Some of them even announced that they are walking out of the alliance. But we have managed to explain to them the real purpose of CAB. That was the only contentious issue. Our governments are functioning normally and in a very coherent manner. There were a lot of misconceptions about the CAB and we tried to explain everything very clearly to the partners. I think we have finally succeeded in convincing them. There is nothing in CAB that goes against the interests of any state or community in NE. Finally, the whole effort brought them to North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) and also the NDA.
In Assam, the parting way of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) was very bitter. Have they put any special condition for the alliance now?
As far as CAB is concerned, it was the only contentious issue between both the parties. On CAB, our position has always been clear that we wanted this Bill to be introduced in Rajya Sabha. We could not do that in the last session of Parliament, but when the new Parliament is formed we would certainly take it forward. The apprehensions that they all had about the Bill and its implications for NE, especially for Assam, were misplaced. So, we told that we will ensure that no harm is done to any state. I think that has convinced them and they came forward again to join hands with the BJP, fight the elections as a strong alliance against the Congress.
Recently, there were some troubles even in a peaceful state like Arunachal Pradesh on permenent resident certificate (PRC) issue. Why do we see such issues cropping up here and there just before general elections?
The violence that took place in Arunachal Pradesh three weeks ago was purely a politically sponsored violence. There were serious allegations against the state Congress leadership. There were serious apprehensions about their role in encouraging all those violent incidents. They used PRC as an excuse. At different times in less than a year the Congress leadership on record was demanding PRC in the state. When the Deputy Chief Minister expressed the desire to bring it in New Year, they suddenly used it as a weapon to corner the government. They took to streets and instigated violence in the state. It was purely politically-engineered violence. The state government has taken the steps. PRC is the issue which every political party had at a point of time demanded. Congress MP Shri Takam Sanjoy was one of the senior most leaders of the Congress who was on record demanding PRC in Arunachal. But now since there are again apprehensions about PRC, the state government has decided to put the process on hold for time being.
So, now the situation is under control?
Yes. It was a politically-engineered thing and not the people’s anger. We have been able to contain it.
NE has always been important for the BJP and its ideological school of thought. How far has the experiment of BJP, NDA and NEDA together been successful in changing the narrative for the people of NE?
First, the very fact that a big national party like BJP is an alliance partner in almost all the states of NE, either as a leading partner or a junior partner, is itself an indication of the growth of nationalist sentiments in all the states. Demographically, Arunachal is a majority Buddhist and significantly Christian state. Nagaland and Meghalaya are Christian states. So, even in those regions, the rise of BJP shows that ‘the nation first ideology’ of BJP is very widely acceptable even in the remotest corners of the country today. We are able to gain support and goodwill of the people in the state like Tripura in a big way. Our victory in Tripura is very significant. After 25 years of Left rule, it is the one state, which directly came in the lap of BJP. It is a big achievement for us. So, the transformation that has happened in NE is an indication of expanding and growing acceptability of the BJP’s ‘nation first’ ideology.
The narrative about NE was that of lack of development and parallel insurgent governments. Now it is too fading away with the growing influence of BJP. How did the BJP manage to do it?
We have seen four-five years of very peaceful NE. Terrorism has largely taken care of and it has largely eroded. Erstwhile the militant supporters have joined the mainstream. Prime Minister and Centre’s engagement with different Naga insurgent groups has led to a situation, where you will soon find a final and permanent solution of this vex problem. The talks are very much advanced. A framework agreement was signed in 2015 and the final agreement is being drafted. I hope later this year, we will have a final agreement to close the chapter of insurgency and separatism in Nagaland. That way peace has come back to the region. The Prime Minister has instructed all his Cabinet Ministers to give special focus to the development of NEern region. We, off course, have a Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region. But beyond it, every Minister has been asked to spend considerable time in NE. In a year alone, there were more than 200 visits of ministers to the region, which never happened in the history.
As a result, today you see a lot of developmental activities there. You go to any state of NE you see highways, new infrastructure and roads being built. Today, Guwahati Airport is one of the busiest airports in the country, which shows the lot of two-way traffic happening in the region. We have a much bigger vision for the NE in the form of Act East Policy which is intended to link India with the entire South East Asian region. For that, NE is emerging as an important hub. A number of Ambassadors from South East Asian countries are repeatedly visiting NEern states. Lot of developmental activities are happening and peace has returned. The central narrative in NE is no longer what it used to be ten or five years back—insurgency, terrorism, poverty, backwardness. Aloofness is no longer a story. The story now is about developmental boom and Indianness. As a government, we have done our best in every state. For example, when we came to power in Assam, until then even Independence Day celebration used to be limited to government offices only. Our government took the decision that it should be a people’s celebration. For the first time, right from private schools to even village Panchayats, everywhere at thousands of places the Independence Day celebration is there. The celebration goes on for a full week. Earlier, the insurgent groups did not allow that to happen. We consciously tried to encourage the spirit of oneness and patriotism but focused on development in a very big way.
It means infrastructure and connectivity played a key role in all these?
Yes. The longest bridges that we have built across Brahmaputra River itself is a story. The bridge was inaugurated by PM last year. Roads and tunnels have been built. We are now actively working on connecting states like Manipur with Myanmar. We are also developing border markets at Meghalaya-Bangladesh and Manipur-Myanmar borders. So, apart from internal development, we are also working on NE’s connectivity with its neighbouring countries. We are also working to connect Tripura with Chittagong Port. Once that happens, Tripura will become the Gateway from the Indian Ocean side to entire NE.
PM used to say unless East and NE join the development process, India cannot develop. In terms of numbers also, the seats from East and NE seem to be critical for BJP now.
During the last five years, the amount of good work that we have done as a government has impacted the lives of people all over the country and particularly in the states like Odisha, Bengal, NE, etc. Secondly, we have paid special attention to strengthening our party’s base in these regions especially in Bengal. We have struggled so much in Bengal. So many of our cadres have been killed in a highly brutal manner. There is no limit to the physical attacks, violence and harassment. But our cadre faced all these boldly. They did not run away. Finally, the organisational fight back, mix of PM Modi’s good works and organisational strength are going to give us amazing results in the forthcoming general elections. We are quite hopeful that Eastern India together with NE is going to add a substantial number of seats to BJP’s kitty. In Odisha and West Bengal, we hope to pick up a large number of seats. In NE, which is now ‘Congress Mukt’, out of 25 seats in all the seven states, we hope to get no less than 20 seats. Right now we have less than 10. Quite a number of seats will come from Bengal and Odisha. That will add substantial seats to our national tally. I am repeating that the results in Bengal and other Eastern and NE states will certainly be surprising. Nobody will realise that the BJP is going to get this much number of seats.
It looks like East and NE are going to decide the final outcome of elections.
Yes, we are expecting more than we normally get. Maharashtra and Bihar should give us more seats than before. Post results, the real story will come from Eastern India and the NE.
How is the BJP organisationally planning to sustain its ‘nation first policy’ or the complete sense of integration in NE?
As Party and government together, our focus is to sustain this campaign of Indianness. Both physical and psychological distance has been there. The tragedy has been that NE had one of its members as PM of this country for ten years. Dr Manmohan Singh represented Assam in Rajya Sabha for two terms. Still, no attention was paid to reduce this physical and psychological distance. But PM Modi, right from the day one, had in his mind that we have to address this issue of distance. And we have done so much. I have discussed about the celebration of Independence Day in Assam to spread the sense of Indianness. Tripura and Manipur have a very peculiar demography. Half of it is plain and half is hills. There was always a divide between the people of hills and people plains. The Congress, for its own political ends, always nurtured this gap. But our whole effort in Manipur, for the last two years, has been to create One Manipur. It is no longer the hills and the valley. It is no longer the Christians in the hills or Nagas or Kukis in the hills or Meitheis in the valley. Now ‘we all are Manipuris’ is the narrative. Similarly, in Tripura, for the last one year, we have bridged the gap between the tribals and the Bengalis. Earlier, communists and Congress used to play this card for political ends. The well-meaning people can notice it even today that the newly appointed state president of Congress in Tripura on record says ‘I am the representative of the original tribals of Tripura and my tribal identity is important for me’. We as a government said no to it. We have tribals and Bengalies, but we are one state or Tripura society. So, that effort is integral to the whole of our functioning. That is why today you find greater acceptance. You go to Manipur or Tripura, tribals and non-tribals together participate in the BJP events in big numbers. Same is the story of Arunachal. Western Arunachal is Buddhist dominated, while Eastern Arunachal is non-Buddhist tribes largely Christians. We have now bridged that gap. It is one Arunachal. These internal demographic differences also used to be exploited by political parties as well as the insurgent groups. We have addressed all those issues. This effort of ours will continue in all the states. BJP there means BJP’s message of India will be there. We are not there just to have our governments in power, we are there to show our message i.e. Indianness.
Reang refugees are languishing in Tripura camps for the last two decades. What is the progress in their return to Mizoram?
Reang issue is a little complex. They have been living the life of refugees in neighbouring Tripura for about two decades. Last year, we made a very sincere effort. We offered them a very good package and encouraged them to go back to their home state Mizoram. Union Home Minister Shri Rajnath Singh took a special interest in finding a very good solution to this problem. We need to understand that about 40,000 Reangs live in refugee camps in Tripura and more than a lakh Reangs live in Mizoram today. Their life is normal. I agree, they had a genuine reason to flee. But today things have changed. We are a partner in power today. Ruling MNF is a NEDA partner. We together appealed to these people. The Home Ministry proposed an excellent package. We had hoped that these people would slowly start going back. In fact, a tripartite agreement was also signed by the Government of Mizoram, leaders of Reang Refugee communities and the Home Ministry. But after going back, for some reasons, may be due to pressure from the community members, the Reang leaders have gone back on the agreement. But efforts will be made to again encourage them to accept the package. Since the state government is a partner of NEDA, we would ensure that there is no harm to them after their return to Mizoram.
(The interview was originally published in Organiser on March 26, 2019)