The Bharatiya Janata Party is all set to be part of the government in Meghalaya once again.

Shortly after the results of the Assembly election in the hill state crystalised on Thursday evening, the party said it would extend support to the National People’s Party, which emerged as the single largest party with 26 legislators in the 60-seater Assembly. The party’s chief strategist in the region, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, then took to Twitter to post a self-congratulatory message. Calling the verdict “humbling”, he added, “Heartening that more people have posed [sic] their faith in us and helped us improve our vote share than [in the] last elections.”

In truth, though, the BJP’s performance did not improve. Its vote share actually dropped. In 2018, the party contested only 47 seats and clocked 9.6% of the total vote. This time it put up candidates in all 60 seats and yet it pulled only 9.33% of the vote. Seat-wise, it won two – the same as last time.

In other words, the saffron party has struggled to expand its electoral footprint in Meghalaya. This despite many efforts – for instance, the run-up to the election saw several bigwigs of the party, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah, addressing widely-publicised election rallies.

What explains this?

The burden of Hindutva

The biggest factor hindering its growth, observers say, is its enduring “anti-Christian” image. The BJP has struggled to shed its “Hindutva” tag in the Christian-majority state despite dialling down its hardliner stance on several subjects such as the consumption of beef to cater to local sensibilities.

Ahead of the polls, several influential church bodies from the state flagged “the increased targeting of the Christian community” in several parts of India and “the deafening silence of the Prime Minister”.

What also put the party on the back foot in the state ahead of the election was the surfacing of a letter from the police in neighbouring BJP-ruled Assam, seeking details on religious conversion and the number of churches in the state.

The Meghalaya unit of the BJP tried to diffuse the tension by pointing out the subsequent retraction of the letter on the orders of Assam Chief Minister Sarma, but people saw it as too little, too late.

Not too long after, there was fresh trouble when a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-backed organisation in Assam demanded that converted tribals be removed from the Scheduled Tribes list.

All of this, said Shillong-based political scientist Moses Kharbithai, had an adverse impact on the BJP’s prospects. “Moreover, Christian people in Meghalaya know how the right-wing organisations supported by the BJP are harassing the community [Christian] across the countries,” said Kharbithai.

A crowded political space

Also making the road tougher for the BJP in the state is the presence of several regional parties, all with their own fairly-established voter bases. The electoral space in Meghalaya, particularly in the state’s Khasi Hills, is extremely crowded, populated by strong ethnic parties.

These small parties play an outsized role in the state’s politics – and are often the ones who decide who gets to be in power in Shillong. This time, these smaller regional parties have together raked up a tally of 19 seats.

The United Democratic Party, which espouses the cause of Khasi nationalism, is, in fact, the second-largest party this election, winning 11 seats. The newly-formed Voice of the People’s Party, which fought on the plank of “clean elections”, won four out of the 12 seats it contested. Then, the People’s Democratic Front and the Hill State People’s Democratic Party also bagged two seats each.

“The regionalist parties are very strong in Meghalaya with their own ethnic bases and it is tough for the BJP to penetrate this space,” said a political scientist, who asked not to be named.

Unlike, in say, Nagaland, where the BJP fought the election jointly with the Neiphiu Rio-led Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, the BJP did not have a strong regional partner in Meghalaya to hoist it, the political scientist said.

On the contrary, the party in Meghalaya, observers said, was closely associated with the non-tribal population, who are often referred to as “outsiders” in a state where ethnic fault lines run deep. This made the party even less attractive to the tribal majority.

Missing local heft

The lack of formidable faces is also a major obstacle for the party, some say. Apart from the veteran Alexander Laloo Hek and Sanbor Shullai, both of whom retained their respective seats, the party has few other leaders with any significant recall value. This, those who follow the state’s politics say, is a big impediment in a state where electoral politics largely revolves around personalities.

Organisationally, too, the party is not the strongest in Meghalaya.

“They don’t have well-organised party structures except in some constituencies,” Kharbithai said.