Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Congress Suffers in North-East

Editorial published in the Economic and Political Weekly
The Congress is the clear loser in the three states that went to the polls.

The elections in the north-eastern states of Tripura,Meghalaya and Nagaland have thrown up few surprises. In Tripura, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front (LF) has retained power with an increased majority. With no single party gaining an absolute majority in Meghalaya and Nagaland, the two states have produced hung assemblies. Mixed the outcome appears to be, but there were presumptive winners and losers in the elections. The Congress Party must be considered the biggest loser though it did emerge as the single largest party in Meghalaya.

The comfortable victory (49 out of 60 seats) of the LF (minus the Forward Bloc this time) led by chief minister Manik Sarkar was achieved in an election that saw a record turnout (92 percent) and the Congress-Indigenous National Party of Tripura (INPT) alliance winning only 11 seats. The victory of the LF could be attributed to the superior mobilising abilities of the ruling coalition, which pitched socio-economic development and its handling of militancy in the state as the major election issues. The INPT, led by former insurgent Bijoy Hrangkhawl, was able to win only one seat, signalling a disaffection with the former militants among the tribal populace of the state, even as many Congress leaders bit the dust at the hustings. Questions were raised about the possibility of an upset, because of the withdrawal of the Forward Bloc – which is a constituent partner of the front in the panchayats and in the autonomous council – from the LF for this election. The party, however, lost heavily in all of the 12 constituencies where its candidates contested on their own.

Secessionist forces in Tripura have been dealt with firmly by the LF government, which has also addressed issues faced by the tribal populace by devoting resources to people’s welfare in coordination with the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council. This resulted in an increased seat share in tribal areas for the left parties (19 out of 20 constituencies reserved for the scheduled tribes). Tripura under left rule for the past 15 years has shown progress in indicators such as literacy, in improving livelihoods, especially in rural areas, and in extending education and health facilities. The high degree of political participation among all sections and the LF’s high vote share are testimony to the positive reception for the alliance among the voters.

In Meghalaya, however, a familiar drama is taking place. As has been the disturbing norm in recent cases of a hung assembly, the governor, using the logic of inviting the single largest party, controversially called upon D D Lapang of the Congress to form the government despite the party winning only 25 of the 59 seats to which results were announced. The day before, 30 legislators were paraded under the leadership of former Lok Sabha speaker P A Sangma in front of the governor; the legislators were part of a post-poll alliance, the Meghalaya Progressive Alliance (MPA) with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) taking the lead in its formation.

Meghalaya has had a history of unstable coalitions and governments (18 in the last 35 years) and this decision by the governor not to honour the existing arithmetic is only bound to recreate the familiar tactics of buying support to prove a majority on the floor of the assembly. Having said that, opportunism has characterised the various parties in opposition to the Congress. Other than the NCP, which won only 14 seats and the BJP one seat, the other regional parties in the MPA were all part of the Congress-led coalition before quitting on the eve of the polls. The NCP, which led a furious campaign against the Congress, could not manage to win outside its traditionally strong areas in the Garo Hills. There are 25 newly elected members in the assembly, a sign of dissatisfaction with the performance of the sitting legislators in the state.

In Nagaland, a pre-poll coalition, the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN), consisting of the Naga Peoples’ Front (NPF) with 26 seats, the BJP with two seats and the NCP with two seats, along with four independents, was able to win a majority of the 59 seats in the assembly and has formed the new government. The Congress won 23 seats and accepted defeat in the insurgency-affected state. The erstwhile DAN government was removed from power and president’s rule was imposed in January this year following a bout of defections and squabbling. This was made a campaign issue by the NPF and its allies.

The question of statehood (greater Nagaland or “Nagalim”) still predominates in Nagaland and as a dominant issue, this election was no exception. The Congress Party in the state had promised in its manifesto to press for “Greater Nagaland”, quoting certain unimplemented clauses in the 16 point agreement between Jawaharlal Nehru and the Naga People’s Convention in 1960. The response of the major insurgent outfits in the state was negative to this poll promise by the Congress, while the NPF, which promised a continuation of its “equi-closeness” policy with the insurgent outfits engaged in internecine fighting, was able to reap support by indicating to go beyond the 1960 agreement in evolving a political solution. The new DAN government has now appointed a political affairs committee to talk to the underground insurgent outfits to resolve the long-standing statehood problem. There is no guarantee, however, of a stable government because most of the parties in Nagaland have used tribal loyalties and the politics of pork and pelf to come to power.

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