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NECK AND NECK IN THE NORTHEAST

With the completion of withdrawals and the official announcement of the final list of candidates, the campaign for the three Northeast states going to the polls — Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura — gets off to a flying start today. What are the prospects' The Congress is the ruling party in Nagaland, a partner in the ruling coalition in Meghalaya, and the leader of the opposition in Tripura. Today, “Mani-Talk” explores the prospects in Nagaland. Over the next two Tuesdays (February 18 and 25) the other two states — Meghalaya and Tripura — will be taken up for scrutiny. Polling is on February 26.

In Nagaland, the decade-old Congress government of S.C. Jamir ought to be facing an anti-incumbency backlash. It is not. There appear to be two basic reasons for this. First, Nagaland has never before known the kind of political stability it has enjoyed these last ten years. Second, stability has facilitated good governance. There has been the restoration of a measure of law and order. The menace of insurgency has, to a considerable extent, been met. Above all, the people have been involved in their own development. The “communitization” programme of the Jamir government has given real teeth to the village development councils. Funds for rural development are actually being planned on the basis of felt needs at the village level and administered by the elected representatives of the people. While the Jamir government cannot boast of any spectacular megaprojects — steel mills or petroleum refineries or cement plants — it can boast of having channelled to the people the money meant for the people. Big industry adds to the wealth of the nation; money for village housing and sanitation, primary health centres and elementary schools, water harvesting and rural roads, is money which adds to the wealth of the people. Because of such grassroots development through grassroots democracy, Nagaland, which is exempted from the panchayati raj requirements of the Constitution, is, paradoxically, the most outstanding example of effective panchayati raj in the country, of Gandhiji’s dream of poorna swaraj through gram swaraj.

Of course, there are corrupt ministers and lazy legislators. It is they who will get their just deserts at the hustings. For the communitization system works on social audit and no one in a Naga village has to wait for The Telegraph to inform him or her as to who is defalcating funds or pushing for contracts to his good-for-nothing nephew. The people know. And so the people will punish them.

More complicated is the electoral fall-out of the peace process. The Naga People’s Front, the ragtag bobtail coalition cobbled together with Bharatiya Janata Party backing to humble the Congress, hopes to pull off what the Janata Party-Congress For Democracy alliance did to Indira Gandhi in the aftermath of the Emergency — bring together everyone who has a grievance against Jamir by burying internecine differences and presenting a united front against the ruling establishment. But since Jamir has hardly run an Emergency — indeed, under him, Nagaland has known more freedom of speech and thought than at any time before — the single-point issue on which he is being targeted is as the “roadblock” to peace. Whether this propaganda will work, or the truth will prevail, only the counting of votes on March 1 will reveal. But it does seem travesty of facts to suggest that a man who has stood rock solid for the integrity of India, for Nagaland as an indivisible of India, for merging the Naga destiny into the destiny of India, should be portrayed as a “roadblock” while those who have taken up arms against India, created the myth of a sovereign Nagalim having existed before the advent of the British, killed and maimed far larger numbers of Nagas than Indian security personnel, and are still adamant on rejecting the Constitution and the republic, should be portrayed as the lobby for peace! Especially when the candidates of the NPF/BJP are being covertly projected, promoted and protected by the armed cadre of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), while their opponents are browbeaten, threatened and intimidated.

Lurking behind the militants in the Northeast is, of course, the baleful influence of George Fernandes, just as lurking behind every discontent is the type-writer of Arun Shourie. Now lurking behind the coalition against the Congress is the sangh parivar. It has discovered its mascot in the octogenarian former chief minister and long-time Jamir rival, Hokishe Sema. The irony of those who targeted the Australian missionary, Graham Staines, in Orissa, and burned the churches of Christian tribals in Gujarat, now emerging as defenders of the Baptist heritage of contemporary Nagaland is lost on no one.

On the other hand, there is no denying the impact on the public mind and voting intentions of the talks at the level of Atal Bihari Vajpayee that took place on Indian soil when Isaac Swu and T. Muivah landed in the Indian capital on Indian passports just a month before the elections in Nagaland. Exquisite timing, if one assumes the Naga voter is incapable of remembering the Centre’s foot-dragging over the past six years. Aimless opportunism if the Naga voter is not taken in by the gimmick. For, substantively, the talks amounted to no more than an initial clearing of throats. However, there is at the moment no telling whether the voter will remember that it is Jamir who prepared the ground for the ceasefire of 1997 with the NSCN (I-M) and with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) in 2001 — or whether the voter will believe the two ceasefire agreements were signed by non-Congress governments at the Centre and, therefore, a non-Congress government in Kohima is the better bet. Also, one does not know whether the voter will be more impressed by Jamir’s steadfast commitment to the peace process, notwithstanding three assassination attempts on him personally by the militants, or whether the photographs of Vajpayee receiving a smiling Muivah and a beaming Swu will leave the larger imprint on the voter’s mind. Nor does one know whether it is the spectacle of the Northeast region, particularly Manipur, going up in flames at the incompetence of Vajpayee’s 14th June 2001 agreement, or of Vajpayee firmly turning down the NSCN (I-M)’s demand for Nagalim which will influence the voter.

The last election in Nagaland was a walk-over for the Congress because the NSCN (I-M) threatened to make short work of anyone who participated in an “Indian” election. The people of Nagaland showed twice over — in the state assembly election of 1998 and the Lok Sabha election of 1999 — that they were not about to be browbeaten by the minatory posturing of the militants. Defying the militants, they cast their ballot in significant numbers. Their vote was a vote for democracy. And since the only candidate in the fray was the Congress candidate, they voted for the Congress. This time round, the militants have bowed to the Naga preference for the ballot over the bullet. There is, therefore, a genuine contest on, as genuine as the last state assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir. Those elections redounded to the credit of Indian democracy, both nation-wide and world-wide, because they were both free and fair. Irrespective of which side wins this time round in Nagaland, it is India which will win if the Central government and the Election Commission combine to ensure as violence-free an election in Nagaland as is possible.

I am willing to wager a small bet on a two to five seat majority for the Congress. But I concede that, unlike a few months ago, the contest is now neck-and-neck.

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