In a trend reflective of other parts of the country and that must cause deep anxiety for the Congress leadership, the party has turned up a loser in all three recent state elections in the North-East. It received a thrashing in Tripura where Manik Sarkar’s red troops swarmed all over the Congress and its ally. It got slapped around by Neiphiu Rio’s Nagaland Progressive Front. And in Meghalaya, despite not having the numbers he had pledged to win, former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Sangma and his Nationalist Congress Party deftly outmaneouvered the Congress by quickly stitching together an alliance. (Both Sangma’s sons won comfortably, introducing a new political lineage in the country and the region.) Yet, the high rates of polling are extremely questionable with voter turnouts reported at 80-99 per cent. News accounts from Nagaland talk of under-age voters boasting of casting ballots several times without being checked. This requires meticulous investigation by the Election Commission and the State Election Officer.
The Congress is now in power only in three out of the eight states of the North-east — in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. In the other states, regional parties hold office, barring Tripura where the Left Front rules. Indeed, even though the Congress failed to get a majority in Meghalaya, the elections there followed a pattern set in the 1970s, when coalition politics came to rule. The anti-incumbency factor normally associated with such outings to the hustings hasn’t been visible and even in Meghalaya, the Congress had a good chance of winning a majority had it not alienated its own flock so badly. One of the principal reasons for the Congress failure was its inability to get the party to fall behind one leader and toe the Central line, reflecting the decline of the fear of the ‘High Command’ and the growing strength of state satraps, such as D.D. Lapang.
It was the latter’s bitter determination to stay in power that eventually wrecked the Congress’ majority dreams. Following a party revolt, he was replaced by the modest J.D. Rymbai in 2006. Lapang allowed Rymbai only eight months, camping in Delhi and hassling the Delhi durbar until it tossed its own nominee out. Rymbai and other Congressmen defected to the United Democratic Party that had been in alliance with Congress till a brief while before the polls. And they won their races.
Political instability has been a Meghalaya hallmark for decades, resulting in little development taking place. (Infant and maternal mortality rates are, for instance, among the highest in the country.) Yet, this does not seem to be a priority for its politicians and given the thin margin of political control, Lapang can be expected to do everything within his power to wrest the gaddi back, especially as Meghalaya’s small parties are known for their flexibility.
While the CPI(M) victory in Tripura was expected, what was not was its scale. The Congress was crushed but the real indication of the depth of the Left advance came in the destruction of the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipura (INPT), which was representative of tribal aspirations. The INPT was reduced to just one MLA, its president and former insurgent leader Bijoy Hrangkhawl, while Left nominees grabbed the other tribal seats, emphasising the alliance’s rise above Bengali parochialism.
In Tripura, people voted for governance, albeit with a Leftist plug. Sarkar’s poverty alleviation schemes and job dispensation to loyalists, allied to the enormous Leftist network across rural areas, played a significant role in this win. It also shows support for his tough stand against insurgency.
The lesson of governance — whether substantial or even marginal — was not lost on voters in Nagaland, despite accounts of impersonation and rigging. Former Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio’s government, despite being accused of being too close to the hardline insurgent group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim, edged out the Congress largely on the basis of improving basic services as well as cashing in on widespread anger at his dismissal by New Delhi a few weeks before the elections.
The elections are unlikely to substantially change either the substance or the tenor of the ongoing, seemingly unending talks between the NSCN (I-M) and the Government of India. Although both sides are agreed that the ceasefire will continue indefinitely, the devil lies in the detail, of what can bluntly be called power-sharing. Other questions are how to reduce the bloody confrontation between the two principal Naga factions and improve the atmosphere of fear and suspicion.
Rio’s muscular show emphasises a new realpolitik: that it is no longer a question of sovereignty. The ‘Naga issue’ has become an internal problem of India that will need to be resolved within the existing system but with greater openness, flexibility and generosity than New Delhi has shown. As pressure on the insurgent leaders for a settlement grows, perceptions among many young Nagas is also changing. A glance at India’s schools, colleges, malls, BPOs and the service industry show that many young Nagas, like others in the North-East, are voting with their feet, embracing education and skills because they are realising that if they want to survive with dignity and not live on hand-outs, they will have to compete in an unequal world.
Sanjoy Hazarika is Managing Trustee, Centre for North East Studies and Policy.