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The Battle for Ballot in North-East India

S Thianlalmuan Ngaihte (stngaihtes@gmail.com) is an independent researcher based in Shillong. 

In all likelihood, the so called “Modi wave” will not dent the Congress party’s prospects in north-east India, its stronghold. Though there are a number of political parties contesting the elections in the region, the main battle is going to be fought between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. In the current scenario, the hypothesis that there will be a pan-NE commonality in voter choice stands irrelevant with the presence of diverse issues and multiple players. 

In the run-up to the 16th Lok Sabha elections, north-east (NE) India has attracted  attention of political parties. The region has witnessed a flurry of political activity with the visit of Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, star campaigners of the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), respectively. In addition to this, the Trinamool Congress and other regional parties have also campaigned extensively in the region. The main reason why NE has become one of the battlegrounds of elections 2014 is the expected fractured verdict with no single party-getting majority to form the government at the centre on their own; hence, there is a  compulsion to woo friends/voters/partners in this era of coalition politics. All together, the region sends 25 members to the Lok Sabha.

At the all India level, the BJP is projected to  emerge as the single largest party, while the opinion polls  predict the worst ever performance by the Congress.[i]

In the NE context, though there are a number of political parties contesting the elections, the main battle is going to be fought between the Congress and the BJP. Some believe that there will be a pan-NE commonality in voter choice. This perception arises mainly because of two reasons. Firstly, in spite of the projected gloomy outcome for the Congress party in the rest of India, this time again, the Congress will emerge as the single largest party in the region, which has traditionally been its stronghold. Out of the seven states in the NE, the Congress rules five states. Secondly, the BJP is expected to make inroads into the region because of the “Modi wave” and the projected defeat of the Congress party. Though the BJP has minimal presence in the region, and Modi is a new face here, the  “Modi wave” is on full display and has attracted a large number of people.

While there is some truth in each of the propositions made above, these do not fully explain the underlying issues, forces and players on the ground. The questions are‒ will the so-called “Modi wave” work magic and translate into “numbers” in the NE? Will the Congress be able to defend its strength in the NE? Though both parties have raked up issues that are central to the NE, do  people really believe in their rhetoric? What are the issues that really matter to people of the region? This calls for an understanding of the issues and players in the battle for ballot in NE India in order to comprehend the likely outcome of elections 2014 in the region.

On Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi

Both have come and campaigned, but who will really conquer the region will only be known in a while. Both struck the right chord in addressing issues that are central to the region, and yet both failed to address pertinent issues like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, fake encounters, human rights violation etc.

Modi talked about neglect of the region, unemployment and failure of the Congress government to check corruption and inflation under its rule. Surrounded by much hype, the BJP prime ministerial candidate attracted a huge gathering and addressed his audience with confidence. His campaign in the region boosted the morale of BJP workers and supporters. Modi’s agenda may have attracted the middle class, business groups and unemployed youth, but the magic may not work on the disadvantaged rural masses.

BJP’s Modi may have also captured the hearts of a section of the Hindu community in the region, but his chance of getting votes from the minority community is slim.  The notion “Modi wave” was rejected both by the Congress and the CPI (M). Tarun Gogoi, chief minister of Assam, asserted that there is no such thing as Modi magic, but only Tarun Gogoi magic in Assam. Manik Sarkar, Tripura chief Minister and CPI-(M) politburo member, said, “In reality there is no Modi wave in the country. It is actually the creation of the corporate media”. (Agencies, The Sangai Express: 2014)

The Congress party finds itself at the bottom of the popularity chart because of rampant corruption and inflation during its rule. Moreover, Rahul Gandhi has been unable to generate something akin to a “Modi wave”. Nevertheless, the Congress is not at a disadvantaged position so far as the NE region is concerned. The ruling party has usually captured majority of the parliamentary seats in the states of the region. This really gives the Congress an edge. Moreover, the Congress will also stand to gain from UPA’s 80 centrally sponsored schemes/policies, which have benefited the poor and the underprivileged(Indian Express: 2014).Rahul Gandhi is no stranger to the people of the region, while Modi is, by and large, a new comer.

On the issue of communalism, both the Congress and the BJP have been accusing each other of playing the communal card. However, north-easterners are not so comfortable with the BJP backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its Hindutva stance. Manipur Chief Minister O Ibobi Singh, a Hindu himself, remarked, “BJP is Hindu-centric…should not be allowed to take roots on the soil of Manipur rather they should be uprooted from all over the planet” (Our Staff Reporter, The Sangai Express: 2014).

On Racism and Discrimination

In terms of rhetoric, both the Congress and BJP did not shy away from raising issues of racism and discrimination in their campaigns. Rahul asserted that the death of Nido Tania on 29 January 2014 underscored mainland India's  antipathy towards people from the region. He said that every Indian should enjoy equal privileges in every state of the country. Echoing popular sentiment of the people, he said that the Congress is committed to root out racial discrimination in the country, and all northeastern states did not deserve to feel neglected in other parts of the country (Times of India: 2014).

In a similar vein, Modi also talked about the grievances of the NE people in Indian metropolitan cities and called attacks on north-eastern people as a “national shame”. Modi blamed the Congress government for the suffering of NE people in Indian metropolitan cities (Sharma: 2014). Whose rhetoric will sweep the ballot box, will be seen shortly. 

On Territorial Integrity and Naga Issue

Another central issue of elections 2014 in the NE is “territorial integrity” of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh vis-à-vis  the settlement of  the Naga issue. This issue occupies  a central stage because of Nagaland CM Neiphiu Rio's “tactical” move to contest the lone seat in Nagaland on Naga People’s Front (NPF) ticket. He is a consensus candidate of the ruling Democratic Alliance of Nagaland, which comprises NPF, BJP and JD(U).  Though the NPF’s chance of winning in Nagaland is high, their prospect is slim in the neighbouring states. Even then, Rio’s campaign highlighting the Naga  issue  had ripple effects in the region. The Congress believes that there is a hidden agenda behind Rio’s move. It is reported that Rio has been assured a cabinet berth by the BJP if the NDA comes to power.

How far a lone MP from Nagaland  be able to push the Naga issue in  Parliament, is  a matter of speculation. Nevertheless, we have to remember that it was the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government that had acknowledged the “unique history of the Nagas” and extended the ceasefire agreement “without territorial limits” in June 2001.  

The NPF stand has been  strongly countered by the “territorial integrity” campaign of  the Congress  which is in power in  Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Also,  the NPF  has faced criticism from the  local Congress  party  members in  Nagaland who  blame NPF of being communal by accepting communal forces as their high command.

Role of Armed Militants in Elections

Militant groups’ interference with the election process is not new in the NE. The influences that armed groups have in determining the outcome of election in certain states of the region is well-known. This time, an  interesting development which has taken place  is that militant groups who are party to the tripartite Suspension of Operation (SoO) agreement with the state and central Government exercised their franchise in the election. “The government has issued strict instruction to the SoO groups that headcount will be conducted on the designated camps prior and after the polling day” (Our Correspondent, The Sangai Express 2014). A militant group, party to the SoO, openly declared their support for the Congress candidate in the outer Manipur parliamentary constituency. This evoked reactions from the NPF and the BJP,  and they accused  the Congress of colluding with militant outfits.

Though the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) (NSCN-IM) has not openly declared its support to anyone, the Congress criticised them for campaigning for the NPF candidate in the region. There was even a news report of booths being captured by militant groups in Manipur (Our staff reporter, the Sangai Express: 2014).

A Likely Scenario

Arunachal Pradesh, considered a Congress bastion, will face a tough battle between the Congress and the BJP. The BJP is believed to  have reopened its account in the state. The Congress and the BJP’s chance of making inroads into Tripura and Sikkim are nil. The ruling CPI (M) is projected to retain the two seats in Tripura, and in Sikkim, the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front has a strong hold over the state. In Mizoram, though the Congress faces a tough battle from United Democratic Front,[ii] the party is still the favourite in the state.

Assam, which sends the largest number of MPs from the region (14 members), will see a close fight between the Congress and the BJP. The Congress is confident of getting the largest number of seats in the state. On the other hand, the BJP is expecting that the “Modi wave” would  prove to be a game changer in Assam. They believe that the party’s emphasis on development, good governance and  national security would really improve  its prospects in the state. However in contrast to the BJP’s expectation, some opinion polls show the Congress getting the largest number of seats in Assam, followed by the BJP. This is due to the Congress’s strong presence in the state.

When burning issues like immigration and conflict  confront the region, it is very likely that there will be polarisation of votes on community lines. This is true for the case of Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur and Nagaland.

In Meghalaya, the National People’s Party (NPP)[iii] is facing  tough competition from the ruling Congress party for the Tura seat. For the Shillong seat, the Congress candidate faced a formidable opponent from United Democratic Party. Playing on the sentiment of the Garo people, NPP candidate, Purno Agitok Sangma banks on the issue of Garoland. Writing about the Shillong parliamentary constituency, Fabian Lyngdoh wrote, “People had seen the political behaviour of Paul Lyngdoh (of United Democratic Party), and they had observed the performance of Vincent H Pala (sitting Congress MP). They now think that Pastor Basaiawmoit (independent candidate) might be a better choice; since he is a Church leader he might be able to do some justice. But still others feel that once a person enters into this kind of politics, be he a Human or an Angel, he would end up wearing a new cloak befitting the course” (Lyngdoh 2014).[iv]

Conclusions

Seeing the diversity of issues prevailing in the region and the presence of multiple players, the hypothesis that there will be a pan-NE commonality in voter choice stands irrelevant. People’s perception and choice of candidates differ from state to state and context to context. The BJP may see its number rise, yet, it is the Congress party with   five states under its belt which will capture the maximum seats. Moreover, some regional parties of the region  are expected to be successful too.

The importance accorded to NE by political parties of the country is expected to bridge the psychological gap between the region and the rest of India. It is hoped that the region will continue to be important for the nation  and not just only at the time of elections.  

Ultimately, what matter to the people of the region whether the “promises”  made by the  parties are kept Or, will they just remain as a rhetoric  to hoodwink the voters.  

 


Notes: 

[i] The accuracy of all predictions will be known only after the results are declared. Until that day, everything is just a speculation.

[ii] United Democratic Front of Mizoram is an electoral alliance of eight opposition parties, including the Mizo National Front, the main opposition party in the state. .Besides the MNF, the UDF constituents comprise the Zoram Nationalist party, the Mizoram People’s Conference, the Maraland Democratic Front, the Hmar People’s Conference, the Paite Tribal Council, the BJP and the Nationalist Congress Party.

[iii] National People’s Party founded by former Lok Sabha PA Sangma is a partner to NDA.  

[iv] For further reading on NE election, refer, Ninglun Hanghal (2014): “Do the north eastern states vote differently in state assembly and Lok Sabha elections?”…; Thangkhanlal Ngaihte (2014): “What influence or power will a lone man from Nagaland wield in Parliament?”…; Thongkholal Haokip (2014): “Northeast to the centre”…; Khamkhansuan Hausing (2014): “Message from the Northeast”…

References: 

Agencies (2014): “80 pc voting in Tripura, 72 pc in Assam”, The Sangai Express, 7 April, available athttp://www.thesangaiexpress.com/page/items/37690/80-pc-voting-in-tripura-72-pc-in-assam, accessed on 10 April 2014.

 

Hanghal, Ninglun (2014): “Do the north eastern states vote differently in state assembly and Lok Sabha elections?”, The Sangai Express, 5 April, available at http://www.thesangaiexpress.com/page/items/37569/do-the-north-eastern-states-vote-differently-in-state-assembly-and-lok-sabha-elections, accessed on 10 April 2014.

 

Haokip, Thongkholal (2014): “Northeast to the centre”, Indian Express, 6 April, available athttp://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/northeast-to-the-centre/99/, accessed on 10 April 2014.

 

Hausing, Khamkhansuan (2014): “Message from the Northeast”, Indian Express, 8 April, available athttp://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/message-from-the-northeast/, accessed on 10 April 2014.

 

Lyngdoh, Fabian (2014): "Election 2014: Some Predictions", The Shillong Times, 3 April, available at http://www.theshillongtimes.com/2014/04/03/election-2014-some-predictions/, accessed on 23 April 2014. 

 

Ngaihte, Thangkhanlal (2014): “What influence or power will a lone man from Nagaland wield in Parliament?”, The Hindu, 3 April, available at http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/the-curious-case-of-neiphiu-rio/article5865061.ece, accessed on 10 April 2014.

 

Our Correspondent (2014): “195 rebels to cast vote in Churachandpur”, The Sangai Express, 7 April, available at http://www.thesangaiexpress.com/page/items/37689/195-rebels-to-cast-vote..., accessed on 10 April 2014.

Our Staff Reporter (2014): “BJP alleges booth capturing by NSCN-IM and SoO groups”, The Sangai Express, 9 April, available at http://www.thesangaiexpress.com/page/items/37747/bjp-alleges-booth-capturing-by-nscn-im-and-soo-groups, accessed on 10 April 2014.

 

Our Staff Reporter (2014): “CM puts onus on public”, The Sangai Express, 7 April, available athttp://www.thesangaiexpress.com/page/items/37688/cm-puts-onus-on-public, accessed on 10 April 2014.

 

Sharma, Bijoy Kumar (2014): “BJP banks on Modi magic in Dhubri Dhubri”, Telegraph, 7 April, available at http://www.telegraphindia.com/1140408/jsp/northeast/story_18166295.jsp#.U0Ogd6LBHFwaccessed on 10 April 2014.

 

Sharma, K Sarojkumar  (2014): “Modi promises overall development in northeast”, Times of India, 9 February, available at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Modi-promises-overall-developme..., accessed on 10 April 2014.

Times of India (2014): “India has a lot to learn from the northeast, says Rahul”, Times of India, 19 March, available athttp://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/India-has-a-lot-to-learn-from-t..., accessed on 21 March 2014.

 

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