As India kick-starts the world’s largest democratic exercise from the North East on April 7, the region will make an emphatic statement that decades-old insurgency that plagued much of the area is all but passé.
For instance, April 7 is the raising day of separatist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). Holding an election in the region coinciding with a major landmark of any of the militant outfits was unthinkable even a year ago.
The turnaround was possible as most of the prominent militant outfits such as National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and ULFA have either joined the peace process with the government or have been marginalised.
The change over the past few years has propelled growth and opened up development avenues. During the 11th Plan period, the eight states of the region– Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Nagaland and Sikkim – recorded an average 9.95 per cent growth compared to the national average of eight per cent.
The change is reflected in the campaign thrust this time, moving from promises of peace to issues of development, corruption and employment generation getting due prominence.
BJP has even come out with a separate ‘vision document’ for each state of the region. AAP has fielded 16 candidates in the region’s 25 Lok Sabha seats hoping to cash in on the region’s new-found development aspiration. Compulsion of coalition politics has forced the parties to give unprecedented focus to the region’s 25 seats (14 in Assam, two each in Tripura, Meghalaya, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh and one each in Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim.)
“In my long political career, I have never seen the region getting so much political attention from non-regional parties other than the Congress during an election,” Assam Irrigation Minister Ardhendu Dey pointed out. With most opinion polls indicating BJP will fall agonisingly short of the magic figure of 273, the party is banking heavily on the region, a hitherto Congress bastion, to take it home.
However, it will be a tall ask to add to its four seats, all in Assam, despite Narendra Modi’s rallies drawing huge crowds. The region by and large has been a terra incognita (unknown land) for the saffron brigade. It has only nine MLAs in 498 assembly seats spread across the region, and does not have any legislator in Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram and Sikkim.
To make up for its limited base, the BJP has forged strategic alliances with regional parties and also managed to rope in some veteran regional leaders, including former Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) president Chandramohan Patowary, into its fold.
Tough for BJP
The fact that Congress has not fared too badly on the development front in the region has made the task tougher for BJP. In Assam, the Congress government is in its third consecutive term under Tarun Gogoi without any apparent anti-incumbency factor.
Besides, BJP has not yet been able to cut any ice with the state’s 33 per cent Muslim voters. The community is a deciding factor in at least six seats.
More than the BJP, the All India United Democratic Front (AIDUF) appears to be the main challenger for the Congress in the state as the party with its Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind link is fast eroding the Congress’ traditional Muslim vote bank.
In another Congress-ruled state of Mizoram (one seat), the party after sweeping the assembly poll in November last year is too entrenched to be uprooted. In Manipur too, Congress under chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh, who is also in his third term, is not facing any major challenge due to the fragmented opposition.
This time, however, the state’s oldest regional political outfit Manipur Peoples’ Party (MPP) has decided to back BJP candidates in both Manipur Inner and Outer constituencies.
Arunachal Pradesh is the only Congress ruled state where the party recently suffered a hiccup on account of dissidence. Chief minister Nabam Tuki, to ward off trouble, resigned last month recommending premature dissolution of Assembly to hold simultaneous state elections.
Sensing a chance of winning a seat or even both here, BJP hopes it does not draw a blank in the state’s two Lok Sabha seats.
In Tripura, which also accounts for two seats, the incumbent Left front government under Manik Sarkar has its own development model to tom-tom against Modi’s Gujarat model.
Meghalaya could see status quo maintained with the Congress retaining the Shillong seat and Tura going to the National People’s Party’s Purno Sangma who is making a comeback bid.
Going by all indications, NDA is unlikely to return happy from the North East which looks to remain a Congress bastion.
The writer is a freelance journalist
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