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Verdict Northeast: A Vote Against The Congress?


Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi


Of all the three northeastern states that went to the polls in the past one month, Nagaland was the scene of the most fascinating battle. It was just not a contest between the Neiphiu Rio-led Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN)—dismissed in favour of President’s rule two months before the elections—and the Congress Party that was trying to make a come back. The verdict is also seen as having brought to the fore the common Naga’s perception on the peace process in the state in the backdrop of unceasing insurgent violence.

The decision of the UPA government in New Delhi, at the behest of the Nagaland state unit of the Congress Party, to impose President’s rule in the state backfired on the prospects of the latter. As he cried ‘murder of democracy’ before his potential electors, former Chief Minister Rio was doubly sure that New Delhi has done him a great service and with a single stroke has eclipsed the memories of his government’s largely non-performing existence in the state. Rio made no attempt to hide his delight when he declared on March 10 that the dismissal of his government had actually helped its prospects in the elections. The DAN secured the ‘unconditional and committed’ support of 34 MLAs. The Congress Party did make some last minute attempt at boosting its non-existing prospect, but had to give up.

The return of the DAN government has, thus, dispatched an important message to New Delhi, regarding the direction of its peace talks with the NSCN-IM. Irrespective of the recent talks by the official negotiators of the supposed climb down by the outfit from its initial demand for complete independence to what is being increasingly referred now to as a ‘federal agreement’ with the Government of India, there is little indication that the decade long peace talks have moved forward to a desirable extent. While clashes between the security forces and the insurgents have come to a halt, internecine clashes among the insurgents continue to keep Nagaland on the boil, a fact New Delhi appears to be unperturbed about. Moreover, there is all round confusion about not just what has been achieved so far in the peace talks, but also about the future course of action. While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed his willingness to ‘walk an extra-mile’ to achieve peace in Nagaland, the Congress chairperson Sonia Gandhi has spoken of the already existing ‘space within the Constitution to resolve the conflict’, thus miffing the NSCN-IM. The popular verdict has indicated that there is a gross lack of faith in either of these mutually conflicting assertions.

While the loss of Congress has been happy news for the NSCN-IM, the net impact of Rio’s return on the peace process is likely to be minimal. Through out the tenure of his government, Rio was constrained to play the role of a silent observer and there is little likelihood that he would be allowed to enhance his position by either of the parties.

Tripura’s electoral verdict in favour of the Left-front was a foregone conclusion. The CPI-M and its allies secured 49 seats, eight more than the previous election. On March 10, Manik Sarkar created a record in the political history of the State, having been sworn in Chief Minister for the third consecutive term. For the Left-front, this is the fourth consecutive term in Tripura. The Congress and the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT) alliance could manage only 11 seats, eight seats less than the earlier poll in 2003. Manik Sarkar’s generally corruption-free, accountable and clean administration defied the anti-incumbency factor in successive elections, despite the attempt of the beleaguered Congress to stage a comeback or at least improve its tally.

The return of Manik Sarkar, moreover, is also an opinion in favour of his anti-insurgency policy. Till about six years back, tribal insurgency, spearheaded by the NLFT and the ATTF was holding the state to ransom. The Left-front government then unveiled a police-led response to insurgency, which has been a stupendous success. Compared to 296 fatalities in 394 insurgency related incidents in 2003, the year 2007 recorded (till November 30) 38 fatalities from 86 incidents. In fact, only 60 and 50 fatalities were recorded in 2005 and 2006 respectively. Insurgents have lost significant popular support within the state and are mostly alive as a result of their safe havens within neighbouring Bangladesh.

While election induced political commotion in both Nagaland and Tripura have subsided, fractured mandate given by the voters in Meghalaya has kept politicking alive long after the announcement of the results.

The Meghalaya governor S S Sidhu is said to have gone “by the book” in inviting D D Lapang-led Congress Party that emerged as the largest single party in the polls with 25 seats, to form the government. Interestingly, the Raj Bhawan indicated that the decision was taken to prevent horse trading, in view of the fact that the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)-led Meghalaya Progressive Alliance (MPA) is a post-poll alliance. In spite of the MPA’s overzealous parading of 31 newly elected MLAs in front of Sidhu, the bureaucrat-turned-governor cast his vote in favour of the largest single party and not the MPA alliance. The Governor’s decision to give the Congress time until March 21 to prove its strength on the floor of the House may promote horse trading, but what emerged as a masterstrole of sorts is NCP leader Sangma’s ability to cobble up a coalition of regional forces with his party and entering into a power-sharing deal with the United Democratic Party (UDP). While the NCP has won 14 seats, the UDP bagged 11.

There is an apparent method to the desperation of the Congress to secure some lost ground in Meghalaya, following its ignominious defeats in a number of state legislative assembly elections in the Indian heartland, before the three northeastern states went for polls. The debacle suffered in Tripura and Nagaland simply added to its woes and has in all probability forced the party to devise ways to restore some amount of honour in Meghalaya, even for a short while. For how long the experiment lasts could be anybody’s guess. However, it can be safely presumed that Meghalaya which in the late 1990s had witnessed frequent change of chief ministers is back to era of political uncertainty, despite the heralding of the Lapang regime.