“PRESERVE our tradition and culture,” reads the sign at the front of the community hall in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya. It is written in the raspy, clacking language of the local Khasi people, which is more closely related to Khmer, Cambodia’s main language, than it is to the most widely spoken languages in India. Yet beneath it, Nalin Kohli, a suave lawyer flown in from Delhi by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which runs India’s national government, is giving a stump speech in Hindi. The BJP, with its centralising, Hindu nationalist ideology, does not seem a natural fit for Meghalaya, whose 3m inhabitants are mostly Christian and fearful of losing their identity in a country of 1.3bn people. It is testimony to the BJP’s political acumen that it may end up running the state later this month.
In Meghalaya and nearby Nagaland, where an election will be held on February 27th, and in Tripura, a bastion of communism that voted on February 18th, the rest of India is called “the mainland”. Ram Madhav, a BJP leader who works in the eight states of the north-east, has written that the region, “with its extreme diversity, has always eluded a nationalist and integrationist party like the BJP”. Meghalayans love to eat beef, for instance, a practice many in the BJP would like to ban, since cows are holy to Hindus. By default, the secular Congress party, which forms the main opposition nationally, has tended to dominate these states.
Can Eric Greitens hold on to his job?
What next for the Berlinale?
American attitudes towards gun control
The rapid rise and fall of the Anbang empire
Why Billy Graham went to Russia
RBS has turned a profit at last. But it’s too soon to celebrate
Two years ago, however, the BJP scored a surprising success in Assam, by far the most populous state in the north-east. Its campaign had two themes: economic development and the protection of native Assamese from an influx of immigrants. Like the rest of the region, Assam is blessed with copious natural resources and sparsely populated areas, relative to the dusty plains of India’s heartland. For decades locals have worried about how to keep out other Indians. That anxiety has taken on an anti-Islamic hue in recent years, with the fear that Muslim Bangladeshis have been settling in the state illegally. The BJP dubbed the election a new “battle of Saraighat”, in reference to a 17th-century clash in which Assamese forces defeated an invading army of (Muslim) Mughals.
The BJP has also taken control of two smaller north-eastern states, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, by allying itself with local parties and securing defections from Congress. It has set up the North-East Democratic Alliance, along with ten north-eastern parties. Mr Kohli insists this is not an electoral pact, but rather a club to work for the betterment of the region. But Congress has not been invited to join.
Congress is not keen to run on its record in Meghalaya, which it has governed for 14 of the past 15 years. The national government has increased its annual disbursement to the state from 580bn rupees ($903m) to more than 2.5trn rupees, but there is little to show for it. Young people, graduates especially, yearn for jobs. Everyone agrees that the only adequate road is the national highway from Shillong, the state capital, to Assam. For a wet state with huge potential for hydropower, both clean water and electricity are in woefully short supply. Wildcat coal-mining was brought to an abrupt halt four years ago for environmental reasons, which has left miners fuming. Congress had at least been able to claim its rule was peaceful, a welcome change given that separatist insurgencies have racked the north-east for decades. But after a local politician was assassinated on February 19th, apparently by separatists, law and order has become another cudgel with which to beat the state government.
Rahul Gandhi, the leader of Congress, took a turn at flattering the people of Meghalaya at a rally held in Shillong on February 21st. Traditional Khasi society is matrilineal and Mr Gandhi, surrounded by baton-wielding female commandos, seemed to mean it when he said that the rest of India could learn from minuscule Meghalaya. He also lambasted the BJP for failing to stick up for minorities elsewhere. But he shed no light on Congress’s plans for the state. Instead of plumping for Congress or the BJP, many Meghalayans will pick a local party. But given the BJP’s knack for coalition-building, that is likely to usher in a BJP-led government.