Where poll is more Indian than in rest of India

Truth behind the spin

Dorjee Khandu, the maverick CM.

It’s poll-time in Arunachal Pradesh, but the most ubiquitous poster at Tawang’s Nehru Market does not seek votes for any of the candidates hoping to make it to the 60-member Assembly of the frontier State. It rather reads: “I am India. India is me. I love my India”.

It reminds the faraway north-eastern State’s USP for national and international media – the Sino-Indian dispute over its 83,743 sq km territory. It also reflects what the local people on this side of the contentious McMahon Line think about Beijing’s persistent claim on Tawang and rest of the Himalayan State.

But why has the poll frenzy that gripped the rest of Arunachal Pradesh not reached the icy heights of Tawang? For, the ruling Congress’ candidates have already been elected uncontested from all the three assembly constituencies in the border district. One of them is Dorjee Khandu, the Chief Minister of the State for the last two years.

And this is the third time that Khandu won uncontested from his pocket-borough Mukto. This time he also made sure that veteran Tewang Dhondup and debutante Jambey Tashi too win unopposed from Tawang and Lumla constituencies of the district.

Ask Khandu how he could manage to win polls without being contested and he just smilingly thanks people of his constituency for showering blessings on him.

But even a cursory glance through the political annals of Arunachal Pradesh would make one understand that a politician needs much more than just people’s blessings to get to the seat of power and to retain it.

BJP’s tactical move

This is the State where a party could once form the Government without winning even a single seat in the preceding assembly polls and where the Chief Minister along with his cabinet colleagues and other lawmakers of the ruling party could one fine morning en masse switch loyalty and join the party that had hitherto been in the opposition. This is also the State that has had no MLA to sit on the opposition bench of the State Assembly for the past two years. 

No doubt, when it comes to doing a chameleon and using money, muscle and mafia power, the politicians of the State are more Indian than rest of India. And there is no dispute over it.

Arunachal Pradesh witnessed its first political melodrama in 1996. Gegong Apang, who had been ruling the State as chief minister since 1980, quit the ruling Congress and floated a new party called Arunachal Congress. But he had to quit the office in 1999, following a coup within his own party and Mukut Mithi headed the new Congress Government in the State.

The Congress had won the elections in 1999 and Mithi continued to be the Chief Minister. In 2003, Apang – backed by the BJP – toppled Mithi’s Government and returned to the Chief Minister’s office. He later joined the BJP. So did a large number of the Congress MLAs, including the ministers of Mithi’s Government. Thus the saffron party had its own Government in the State although it had not won a single seat in the 1999 polls.

In a shambles

But Apang returned to the Congress ahead of the assembly elections in 2004. The Congress swept the polls and Apang continued to be the Chief Minister till yet another coup within the ruling party unseated him in 2007. He was succeeded by Khandu. Eight of the nine BJP MLAs immediately crossed the floor to join the Congress. So did two MLAs of the Arunachal Congress and 14 independents. The lone BJP MLA R T Khunjuju was the only man left on the opposition bench in the State Assembly. But he too joined the ruling party a year later.

The BJP also lost both the parliamentary seats to the Congress in the last Lok Sabha polls. And a few months later, the BJP’s most prominent leader from the State and ex MP Khiren Rijiju too joined the Congress.

So, with the BJP in shambles in Arunachal Pradesh, the current elections could have been a cakewalk for the Congress. But if it is not, the Congress has to blame two of its allies in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) – Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and All India Trinamool Congress (AITC). The NCP is contesting  36 seats, while the AITC has put up candidates in 26 constituencies. The Congress, which already won three, is contesting all the remaining 57 seats. The BJP has fielded candidates for 18 seats.

Many of the candidates fielded by the NCP and AITC were with the Congress earlier. The ruling party denied tickets to 14 sitting MLAs. Ten of them were picked up by the AITC and two others by the NCP. The NCP even made some of its candidates sign undertakings that they would not switch allegiance after the elections.

Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee’s party made its debut in Arunachal Pradesh just a few weeks before the polls, ostensibly to make its presence felt beyond West Bengal. But the party is finding the going tough here. “We have been told that our opponents are pumping in crores of rupees in constituencies with just 12,000 to 15,000 voters.

We are the poorest of the poorest players here,” said AITC leader and union minister of state Mukul Ray. Ray and other AITC MPs and ministers campaigned across the State, but did not appear much hopeful.

Politics and elections are, indeed, expensive affairs in Arunachal Pradesh. And so 63 of the 154 candidates trying their luck in the battle of the ballot are crorepatis, with the richest being Takam Tagar, the school dropout-turned-businessman brother of the Congress MP Takam Sanjay. 

Tagar is making his debut in politics with this election. He has declared assets worth over Rs 200 crore. He is also the youngest in the fray. According to a study by National Election Watch and Association for Democratic Reforms, Tagar is distantly followed by former MP and Congress candidate Nabam Rebia with assets worth Rs 24 crore and Chief Minister Khandu himself with assets worth over Rs 22 crore.

Money walks the talk

“It’s money that rules here and buys votes. The real issues like lack of development and China’s claim on the State are often put on the backburner,” said All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union leader Baybang Taj. “Money will also call the shots if the election results in a hung assembly and the parties have to engage in horsetrading.”

Congress, however, is confident that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special development package of Rs 24,000 crore would help it win the elections easily. The BJP has tried to rake up the issue of rampant Chinese incursions across the McMahon Line and the meek response from the Congress-led UPA Government. But the Congress countered the allegation.

“People of Arunachal Pradesh know it is only the Congress that could ensure development in the State as well as protect it from any threat from across the border,” signs off Khandu.

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