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Home > Election > Commentary > G Vinayak

There is an election in the Northeast too!

February 19, 2003

The lay reader or viewer may be forgiven if in the midst of the cricket World Cup coverage, he thinks only one state -- Himachal Pradesh -- is going to the polls on February 26.

After all, even the mainstream media bosses, both in print and television, have forgotten that three Northeastern states, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura, are simultaneously witnessing the battle of ballots (and of bullets in certain cases).

Take a cursory glance at any of the so-called national news channels and print publications. All that one finds is token coverage of elections in these states, done by reporters with a metro-centric vision and patronising attitude. These reporters fly in like para-troopers, talk to a few local editors and some politicians and write, apparently, knowledgeably about the politics and politicians of these states. These reports provide no knowledge, in-depth analysis or profiles.

Compare this with reports emanating out of Himachal Pradesh. There are interviews, asides, special reports and sugary sweet campaign trails of even small, unimportant leaders.

But when it comes to the Northeast, our mainstream media, with a few honourable exceptions, is
downright lazy and uncaring. Most reports typically talk about the number of voting booths that are 'sensitive' because of threats by insurgents or revolve around the number of troops deployed in the interior areas to conduct a 'free and fair election.'

The result: very few people in the non-Northeastern states, therefore, know for instance, that Nagaland Chief Minister S C Jamir has been a politician for 40 years, and perhaps one of the few surviving parliamentary secretaries to Jawaharlal Nehru! Or that Meghalaya is the only state in the country that has the dubious distinction of deciding between two chief ministerial contenders by the toss of a coin. The person who won the toss, stepped down honourably, exactly halfway through the term of the assembly in accordance with the terms of the agreement before the toss!

All the three states have 60 members each in their assemblies, just six less than Himachal Pradesh. All three put together send five members to the Lok Sabha, not much less than Himachal Pradesh. And yet, our media treats the elections in the Northeast indifferently.

And the same media has the gumption to criticise the apathy of the politicians and bureaucrats towards the region that contributes 55 per cent of India's tea production, produces five million tonnes of crude oil and acts as the sole buffer against China.

The reality is that the establishment's indifference towards the Northeast has permeated down to the media as well.

So what are the main issues in these polls? Who are the main personalities involved?

The three Northeastern states that will simultaneously go to the polls on February 26, have only one point in common: all three will elect a 60-member state assembly. Apart from this fact, there is very little that is similar to these three states.

The issues in each state are poles apart; the parties and personalities involved are diverse making it difficult to find a common thread. Nagaland and Meghalaya, are both ruled by the Congress or a Congress-ruled coalition.

In Meghalaya, the Congress is fighting a bitter battle for supremacy with the Nationalist Congress Party, led by its General Secretary Purno A Sangma, despite being coalition partners in the outgoing government.

In Nagaland, the NCP has very little presence. In this state, the Congress is led by S C Jamir, a political survivor if ever there was one, who is the main contender for power.

If the Congress is going it alone in these states, in Tripura, it has chosen to align with a regional party that has its sympathies with an underground outfit, against the CPI-M-led Left Front. The BJP with little or no presence anywhere in the region, will be content to improve its tally. 'National' issues like Ayodhya or Bhojshala hold no meaning in these states.

Violence born out of terrorism may be the new worry for the rest of India, but in the Northeast, killings and abductions are routine. Only, during elections, killings take a political hue. The Opposition blames the ruling party for its failure to curb insurgency and the party in power puts the blame on its opponents for using bullets instead of ballots to ride back into power. Witness the bickering between the Left Front and the Congress-INPT alliance in Tripura and the trading of charges and counter-charges between Jamir and his opponents in Nagaland over this score, and you will understand what I mean.

Two aspects stand out in bold relief about the elections in the region. Unlike the rest of India, no big, political rallies take place here. Instead, contestants prefer to go from door to door to seek votes. But lest you think that it's an easy job, the average number of voters in a typical Nagaland constituency may not exceed 20,000.

The terrain is difficult and villages are miles apart. Even with the best of vehicles at their disposal, candidates would be lucky to cover 150 kms in a day.

Secondly, in states like Nagaland and Meghalaya, personalities matter more than parties. Tribe loyalty and personal rapport with voters hold more primacy. Given such a background, one must not be surprised to know that Flinder Anderson Khonglam became the chief minister of Meghalaya even after he won as an independent from Cherrapunjee. This time, he has sought the support of a regional party.

Finally, the February 26 elections are crucial to the political fortunes of two prominent politicians of the region, S C Jamir and P A Sangma. Jamir, who has had an uninterrupted stint as chief minister of Nagaland for the past decade, faces perhaps his sternest political test. His political opponents may be fragmented but the threat from the cadres of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah group) is making life difficult for Jamir.

The NSCN(IM), which is holding talks with the government and has observed a ceasefire since August 1997, may have publicly declared that it will not meddle in the polls, but initial reports from the interiors of Nagaland suggest that its armed cadres are threatening voters to abandon the Congress.

The much younger Sangma too faces a stiff test to prove his political clout on home turf. If he can't deliver Meghalaya to the NCP, Sangma's political fortunes may plummet further and all those who joined him after splitting the Congress in Meghalaya, may just go back to the Congress party, since power is the only thing that the legislators crave for.

One must also remember that in the last five years, Meghalaya has had six governments and four chief ministers. All but four MLAs out of 60 have had the taste of ministership in the last term. This time too, no one expects anything better.

So if you find time after watching those endless telecasts of cricket matches from South Africa and get some respite from the political analysis across our 24-hour news channels in the wake of the Himachal Pradesh verdict, look out for results from the three Northeastern states. They would be more thrilling than an India-Australia encounter in the on-going World Cup. 

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Number of User Comments: 4

Sub: RE:North East(Rehabilation program in north east)

as a citizen of india, and as a part of the north eastern states i stronly felt it necessary to put a rehabilitation program in ...

Posted by zackius T.sangma

Sub: Elections in NOrth-East

It is utterly true that the north-east region so rich in culture and bio-diversity is bearing the brunt of being a small player in the ...


Sub: NE elections and r ignorance

Dear Sir, I agree to what you say, after reading your article here only did I come to know that we had elections in 3 ...

Posted by Saurabh Jain

Sub: North East

Media does tend to ignore NE. One hopes it covers it more as there are important happenings like NSCN(I-M) historic discussions with the center. I ...

Posted by Srikanth B


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