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24 seats but every vote counts for India

Guwahati, April 4: Twenty-four seats in a House of 543 may seem insignificant, but the Northeast’s importance to India’s national elections lies not in numbers.

It lies in the fact that every vote cast in the insurgency-torn region is a vote for Indian democracy and nationhood.

The states here are small — six of the seven have just one or two constituencies each — and their people have been complaining of being treated as aliens in the country’s capital. Yet, like Bollywood and cricket, some political trends from the “mainland” too seem to be catching on, if a little later than elsewhere.

In a region that has traditionally been a Congress bastion, the new kid on the block is Narendra Modi’s BJP. The battle has heated up with visits by bigwigs coming fast and thick.

Modi has addressed at least nine giant rallies across the region, concentrating on Assam and Arunachal Pradesh with their large Hindu populations. Rahul Gandhi has targeted a wider audience that includes the youth, women and minorities.

While Modi has been vociferous in his and the BJP’s stand against illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, especially in Assam, Rahul has focused on inclusive development and decentralisation of power.

A Congress activist was quick to point out one difference: “We are ideology-driven whereas the BJP is personality-driven.”

Dipping their toes to test the waters are groups such as Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress, mirroring the Northeast’s growing importance not just to the national players but also to regional outfits from outside.

Trinamul has fielded several candidates, with Mamata herself addressing rallies in Assam and Tripura.

In Assam, she has sided with the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti led by Akhil Gogoi, who has just stepped out of prison after being arrested in connection with the self-immolation of a Samiti activist on February 24.

The Samiti’s thrust is on land rights, which happens to be the issue that brought Mamata to power in Bengal.

For the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which in the past led two governments in Assam and was a force in Parliament, these elections are an attempt to recover lost ground. This time, it is going it alone rather than in a formal alliance with the BJP.

The BJP has only four MPs from the northeast, all from Assam and all having won in alliance with the AGP. The two parties’ parting of ways had resulted in disastrous results for both in the 2011 Assembly polls.

The Naga People’s Front, which is part of the North East Regional Political Front, a conglomeration of 10 regional parties including the AGP, has been holding up the banner of regionalism in the Northeast.

Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio, who is contesting from his state’s lone Lok Sabha seat this time, has visited Assam to address the AGP’s rallies here.

The battle in Assam is expected to be more intense compared with the other northeastern states. There is no “uniform” challenge to the well-entrenched Congress, which will vie with the BJP in most seats, take on the All India United Democratic Front in some, and the AGP in a couple of constituencies.

One crucial facet of elections in the northeastern states has been that, for over a decade now, they have returned the incumbent party to power in Assembly elections. It’s been the Congress in Assam, Arunachal, Mizoram, Manipur and Meghalaya (except for a brief interlude in 2008), the Left in Tripura and the Naga People’s Front in Nagaland.

Reports from the ground suggest that the ruling parties in these states remain favourites in these Lok Sabha polls too.

Little wonder then that Haren Das, a senior Assam Congress leader, is upbeat.

“The Congress has faced several ups and downs in its eventful journey and survived. People like Modi will come and go but the idea that is the Congress will continue to live,” he said.