Bharat Mata has eschewed the saffron sari in parts of Tripura. According to recent reports, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s favoured mascot for election campaigns has been customised to appeal to four different tribes in the state: the Tripuris, the Reangs, the Chakmas and the Debbarmas, or Kokborok-speaking people. The traditional attire of each tribe will be represented in posters. A sari-clad Bharat Mata will still be doing the rounds to appeal to the state’s Bengali Hindu population.

Eventually, the BJP plans to customise its collection to include 300 tribes across various states of the North East. The idea is to make the “alienated tribes” of the North East feel part of Bharat and claim Bharat Mata, said a BJP leader in Tripura. In the Tripura posters, the mother goddess and national deity will not be of strictly mystical origins. The BJP has recruited women in their twenties to pose for the posters, smiling and clutching the national flag. Tribes in the North East are also chanting “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, the posters seem to suggest.

In many ways, the posters are emblematic of the BJP’s election strategy as it spreads across the North East. In the election victories of Assam in 2016 and Manipur earlier this year, the party showed political agility in the way it adapted to local contexts and forged a coalition of indigenous groups and interests. But its natural impulse has usually been to integrate by homogenising, rather than to diversify.

A saffron gallery

In its North East campaign, local tribal symbols and icons have been tinted with saffron. The BJP has handpicked local historical figures, emphasising strands of their story that fit into the grand narrative of Hindu nationalism and enlisting them in the project of patriotism.

In Nagaland and Manipur, which have both seen movements of secession, the party found Rani Gaidinliu, a woman from the Zeliangrong tribe. She was cast as a freedom fighter who had turned against not only the British but also Christian missionaries because she felt they were trying to stamp out indigenous culture.

For Nagaland at least, the BJP’s choice of icon was off key. It was pointed out that, along with the British, Rani had also fought the Naga National Council, which spearheaded the Naga movement for self-determination. It was also pointed out that she was of the Heraka faith, considered different from the Naga religion that predated Christianity. The Zeliang Heraka Association also had ties to Hindu groups in the region. The BJP, it was felt, was rejecting both Naga nationalism and much of the state’s indigenous culture.

Across other states too, the party retrieved various freedom fighters: Tikendrajit Singh, a Manipuri prince who was hanged by the British; Gopinath Bordoloi from Assam; in Meghalaya, U Tirot Singh, a Khasi chief who fought the British in the 18th century; and U Kiang Nangbah, hanged in 1862.

In Assam, the Sangh also found Sankardeva, a 16th-century socio-religious reformer believed to be instrumental in spreading Hinduism. Besides, old wars were recast as Hindu-Muslim conflicts. Bordoloi became a “Hindutva” hero for warding off Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s advances. The Battle of Saraighat, in which the Ahom kings defeated the Mughals, was also cast as a Hindu victory over Muslim invaders. Yet Lachit Barpukhan, the Ahom who led the campaign, had a Muslim general as his second-in-command and the Mughal forces were led by a Hindu, so the communal divide was not so neat.

Nevertheless, the BJP has tried to tap into the tremendous cultural resonance that battle has in Assam. A new book describing the BJP’s success in the state is entitled The Last Battle of Saraighat.

A time tested strategy

For decades, the Sangh has tried to draw tribal populations into the Hindu fold through a skilfull reinterpretation of culture combined with social work. Hindu organisations working in other parts of India tried to displace the word Adivasi, or original inhabitant, with “vanvasi”, or forest dweller. In the Sangh mythology, all tribal communities were really Hindu before they were lured into the Christian fold. If India was the “pitribhu”, or fatherland, as well as “punyabhu” (holy land) for Hindus, then all its original inhabitants must surely be of that faith, the reasoning goes.

Sangh-affiliated organisations like the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Sewa Bharati, Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation, Vivekananda Kendra fanned out across tribal areas in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Odisha. The near-complete absence of the state in these areas helped them spread their influence through schools and welfare programmes. Even if this outreach was not explicitly political, in places like Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, it yielded electoral dividends for the BJP.

In the North East, too, the BJP seems to be building on older Sangh networks. Way back in 1979, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had established the Assam Sankardev Shishu Kunja back in 1979. In 1998, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram began working in refugee camps in Tripura that were set up for Brus who were fleeing ethnic persecution in Mizoram. The outfit reportedly stirred trouble after it claimed that Brus were really Hindus. In 2014, Sangh workers claimed that 340 Ekal Vidyalayas had been set up across Manipur, Tripura and Assam, drawing about 12,000 children.

Yet there is a palpable discomfort with Hindutva in the North East. Many tribes, such as Nagas, Kukis and Bodos, have their own mythologies of a homeland and their own beliefs inscribed into the landscape. Besides, as Kuki writer Jangkholam Haokip argues in his book Can God Save My Village, the hierarchies of caste can only marginalise Dalits and tribal communities. Where fragile indigenous cultures are gripped by the fear of being obliterated by outside influences, Hindutva acquires the nature of a threat.

Indigenous and non-Muslim

Recognising the limits of Hindutva, the BJP has made measured use of it in parts of the North East. In both Manipur and Assam, it preached development. It also made common cause with local interests, taking up the long-standing demand for Scheduled Tribe status by groups in Assam, for instance, or speaking to the insecurities of the hill tribes in Manipur. The party stood for the interests of the indigenous people of the state, it emphasised.

Yet, at least in Assam, where the BJP has won its biggest victory in the North East so far, there was a subtle hyphenation of identities. So, while the party strung together a “rainbow coalition” of tribes and regional players, Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his campaign speeches in Guwahati with invocations to Kamakhya, a Hindu goddess.

The BJP also tapped into the fear of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, a deciding factor in Assam politics for decades. But while indigenous groups agitated for the expulsion of all so-called Bangladeshis, Hindu and Muslim, the BJP gave it a religious inflection, distinguishing between Hindu “refugees” who had fled religious persecution and Muslim infiltrators who were encroaching on tribal lands. The BJP stood for the indigenous and non-Muslim, the campaign seemed to suggest.

In Tripura, the BJP has already made overtures to the two main tribal parties, the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra and the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra, and the latter has offered its support. As the party eyes a grand alliance of regional interests in Tripura, which goes to polls next year, will it replicate its Assam strategy, twinning a quiet Hindutva with tribal interests? Bharat Mata’s new wardrobe suggests it might.

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article said that Tikendrajut SIngh, a Manipuri prince, was jailed in the Andamans. In fact, he was hanged by the British in Imphal.