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Northeast warmth after northern chill

- Why a region remains a Cong oasis

Dec. 9: BJP 0; Congress 33.

Just another day in the Northeast but a standout piece of statistics in the winter of apparent “national” discontent against the Congress.

The Congress today returned to power in Mizoram, ensuring that the party is at the helm in five of the seven states in the Northeast. The BJP lost all the 17 seats it contested and the Congress bagged 33 in the 40-member House, with repolling ordered in one seat. (See chart)

So what is it about the Northeast that the supposedly pan-Indian Congress, in contrast to its swinging fortunes in the “mainland”, has almost always kept the BJP at bay in this far-flung corner of the country while fighting at least on even terms with the regional parties?

The answer may lie in a slew of factors ranging from demography and culture to the local administrative set-up and land laws.

For example, when Parliament was debating a proposed cow slaughter ban in the 1990s, Meghalaya MP and devout Christian G.G. Swell kept telling the House: “It doesn’t make business sense.”

One would presume that his fellow Christian from the hill state, Purno A. Sangma, would have nodded appreciatively had he not been in the Chair. Swell’s sentiment would have found instant recognition in Christian-majority Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram as well as large swathes of Manipur.

The BJP knows this. Among its senior leaders, Rajnath Singh alone campaigned this time in Mizoram, where the Church’s presence looms over everyday life and loud public meetings are deemed as unwelcome as wall-defacement.

“The Congress’s inclusive, secular image makes it easier for the party in a state such as Mizoram,” said Noni Gopal Mahanta, professor of political science at Gauhati University.

In a lighter vein, Arupjyoti Choudhury, dean (academic) of the K.K. Handiqui State Open University in Guwahati, said: “Also, if there’s any region where Sonia Gandhi’s ‘Christian’ antecedents can hold her in good stead, it has to be the Christian-majority hill states of the Northeast.”

The Congress now rules five of the region’s seven states, having retained power in the last elections in Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. In Mizoram, the party is seen as offering a more comprehensive programme of development compared with its regional rivals.

“It’s up to the regional parties to provide a viable alternative that covers the entire Northeast,” said Durga Das Boro, general secretary of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which has ruled Assam twice. “Until then, the Congress will continue to win in our states.”

‘Council’ country

The Northeast is a land of district councils and tribal belts where indigenous communities hold exclusive land rights and, for others, acquiring plots is close to impossible. To win here, therefore, one needs to speak the language of the local groups and earn their trust.

If Indians from outside Mizoram want to visit the state, they need an Inner Line Permit (ILP), which they must renew after the stipulated period of stay ends.

Now even Meghalaya, divided into three district councils where land transfer to the non-indigenous is impossible, is demanding an ILP regime to keep “outsiders” further in check.

Even in Tripura, a Bengali-majority state with a Bengali chief minister, 68.8 per cent of land comes under a district council dominated by indigenous communities. Plots are virtually impossible to buy or sell here, as in Nagaland.

It’s a situation where the BJP would find it almost impossible to function, leave aside make political inroads.

“The BJP represents the culture of the Hindi heartland, something largely alien to us,” said Allen Brooks, spokesperson for the Assam Christian Forum.

Arunachal Pradesh is the lone exception where Gegong Apang set up a BJP government in 2003, but it came through defections and not an election. Now the Congress has won its second straight term in the Himalayan state.

In Manipur, Congress chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh, who is in his third straight term, has struck a deft balance between the Meiteis of the valley districts and the Kukis and Nagas in the hills.

In Assam, where too the Congress has won three elections on the trot, chief minister Tarun Gogoi has gone out of his way to add a Bodo Territorial Council to his state’s list of autonomous areas.

If AGP rule got tainted by militancy and secret killings, Gogoi’s reign evokes pictures of a health system that delivers and of elephants reaching textbooks to children in remote areas. The Assam Congress has refused to tie up with the Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front, seen largely as a non-indigenous formation.

In Nagaland, too, the Congress used to alternate in power with its regional opponents but disunity in its ranks has led to the Naga People’s Front-led alliance winning the past three elections.

One state may stand out in isolation, but even here the contrast is not as absolute as might seem at first sight.

If the Marxists have a grip over Tripura, it’s because a young Dasarath Deb, who later became chief minister, had carved out a base among the tribal population as a militant before joining the CPI.

The other advantage the CPM has is its leadership’s squeaky clean image. To cite an example, four-time chief minister Manik Sarkar’s wife Panchali Bhattacharya moves around Agartala in a rickshaw. Sarkar has for decades now occupied the aam aadmi space in his state.