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What makes the Cong tick in NE Party rides on secular, progressive image

Dec. 9: It’s about images and the lasting impressions that they leave in the northeastern mind, with their sheer strength.

The image of Panchali Bhattacharya, Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar’s wife, for example, getting off a rickshaw in Agartala, while her husband is escorted past in his official motorcade. That it has always been her chosen mode of transport within the city, all through her husband’s fourth straight terms. Sarkar has for decades now occupied the aam aadmi space here.

Then there’s the image of G.G. Swell, a member of Parliament from Meghalaya in the nineties, and a devout Christian, having to argue against a proposed ban on cow slaughter. “It doesn’t make business sense,” he kept telling the House, which, on that occasion, had P.A. Sangma, also a devout Christian, in the chair. Actually, it wouldn’t make sense to the entire Christian population in the Northeast — in Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram (where the Congress has again won) and large chunks of Manipur.

And it’s not like the BJP doesn’t know it. It was just the lone Rajnath Singh who canvassed for the BJP in Mizoram this time. The man and his party would have been pitted against the all-powerful and all-pervading Synod and the church in Mizoram, one that disallows loud public meetings for a start.

“The Congress’s inclusive, secular image makes it easier for the party in a state such as Mizoram,” says Noni Gopal Mahanta, professor of political science at Gauhati University. Not surprising then that the BJP should lose all the 17 seats that it contested in Mizoram this time.

Within the Mizo electorate, between the Congress and Opposition parties such as the Mizo National Front (MNF) that were earlier in power, the former would have a far more comprehensive development game plan to sell to the voter. And to that add the infighting and squabble for power in smaller groups, and the Congress would have earned its stay. “It would be up to the regional parties of the Northeast to provide a viable, regional alternative that covers the entire region,” concedes Durga Das Boro, general secretary of the AGP that has been in power twice in Assam. “Till we can do that, the Congress will continue to win in our states.”

For the regional parties in the Northeast, a regional platform continues to be a pipe dream.

Unlike in much of the country, the Northeast, beyond its states, is a region of districts councils and tribal belts, of myriad groups, of communities who have exclusive land rights, the law disallowing others from acquiring property. Winning a vote here means speaking the language of the indigenous communities and winning their trust.

The state’s 74.4 per cent literacy notwithstanding, the latest movement that rocks Meghalaya is one that demands promulgation of the inner-line permit (ILP) regime to keep a check on “outsiders”. It’s a scenario the BJP would find impossible to function, leave aside make political inroads. Even in Tripura, for all its “Bengali majority” image and a Bengali chief minister, 68.8 per cent of its land comprises a district council, that is indigenous community dominated, where land is near impossible to buy or sell. The success of the Marxists here is attributed to the base that late chief minister Dasharath Deb had carved among the indigenous population under the banner of Gana Mukti Parishad. Meghalaya’s ILP movement continues despite land transfer being impossible in the three district councils that make up the entire state.

Manik Sarkar’s squeaky-clean image along with the party’s hold among the indigenous population is what makes the CPM the only other mainland party that has managed to make its presence felt in the region beyond the Congress.

The same holds true in Nagaland where power shifts between the Congress and regional forces, over the past three terms in the shape of the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN).

Arunachal Pradesh would be the only exception where Gegong Apang had set up a BJP government in 2003 — even that was through a switchover and not an election. Just now it’s been the Congress that has been put in power for the second straight term here. “The BJP represents the culture of the Hindi heartland, something which is largely alien to us,” says Allen Brooks, spokesperson of the Assam Christian Forum. In the hill states, the Marxists would be equally alien.

In Manipur, Okram Ibobi Singh, the state’s Congress chief minister who is in power for the third term, has maintained a fine balance between the Manipuri Meiteis of the valley districts, and the Kukis and the Naga communities in the state’s hill districts.

In Assam, where the Congress has been in power for a third straight term, chief minister Tarun Gogoi has gone out of his way to create the Bodoland Territorial Council, adding to the number of such areas in the state.

The image shift here, of course, involves a replacement of pictures of militancy, death and secret killings (prevalent during the rule of the AGP) with those of a health system that delivers, of elephants beings used to get textbooks to children in far-flung areas on time, along with Gogoi’s refusal to tie-up with the Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), which is seen as being largely minority-dominated and, hence, not indigenous.