Politicians can sometimes invoke a right cause and still strike a wrong note. Leader of the Nationalist Congress Party, Mr P.A. Sangma, seems to have done precisely that by floating a motley group ostensibly to highlight problems facing the Northeast. It looks suspiciously like a leader’s personal agenda to try and get out of a long spell in the political wilderness. Ever since he left the Congress, refusing to accept Ms Sonia Gandhi as the party’s leader because of her “foreign origin”, he has been marginalized in national politics. Championing the cause of the Northeast is thus a desperate attempt to regain political relevance before the next Lok Sabha elections. But the way Mr Sangma went about setting up the new outfit raises the suspicion that the regional issues are only a footnote to his personal ambition. Further, Mr Sangma, whose party is a partner of the Congress in the ruling alliance in Maharashtra, could be keeping his options open for a future liaison with the Bharatiya Janata Party. That should explain why he kept the Congress and the left parties out of the new regional formation but was enthusiastic about the BJP’s place in it. Little wonder that his arguments to explain the composition of the forum did not convince many prospective partners. The Asom Gana Parishad’s refusal to join it was a particularly crippling blow to Mr Sangma’s ambition.
Yet, most of the issues raised by Mr Sangma are real and call for the parties to close ranks in trying to tackle them. Problems such as insurgency, illegal migration from Bangladesh, poverty and infrastructure development are common to most of the seven states in the region. In fact, these problems beget ethnic conflict and xenophobia typical of the Northeast. Economic development could be the answer for most of these ills in a region which has few industries to create wealth or employment opportunities. Unfortunately, the region remains too far from New Delhi and too small for the national capital’s larger concerns. For generations of policy planners, the Northeast has meant an area of darkness, where the army and other forces are perennially fighting ethnic mutinies. It is not adequately appreciated in New Delhi that basic facilities like drinking water, health, education and employment are as crucial in the region as elsewhere in the country. Neither the previous Congress governments nor the present one of the National Democratic Alliance quite lived up to their promises of integrating the Northeast in the national development agenda. The NDA government made a beginning by creating a department of northeastern affairs; Mr Sangma could begin by asking the BJP what the department has achieved so far.