It would be cynical to attribute a political motive to the prime minister’s bounty for Nagaland. It is true that the state now has a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government for the first time. Sceptics may also wonder why Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee found no time either to visit the state or to announce a development package for it during the tenure of the previous Congress government. But the Nagas will not complain because they need the development funds, with or without any political strings attached to them. More and more people in Nagaland now feel that the long and sad decades of insurgency have kept them away from the path of progress. Mr Vajpayee’s regrets for the state’s “lost years” will therefore ring true for most of these people. The Rs 520-crore development package that he announced in Kohima will fill their hearts with a new hope. But, given New Delhi’s tradition of announcing special economic packages for the Northeast and then consigning them to oblivion, some degree of scepticism is understandable. During the United Front’s brief regime at the Centre, the prime minister, Mr H.D. Deve Gowda, announced a Rs 6,000-crore package for the whole of the Northeast. It was forgotten even before the United Front government fell. New Delhi can no longer afford to go back on its commitment to end the region’s isolation, which feeds militancies and other unrests there.
Nagaland is the best place in the Northeast to begin the new initiative. A serious economic agenda for the state can compliment the Centre’s dialogue with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim led by Mr Isak Chisi Swu and Mr Thuingaleng Muivah. Development work can help create the atmosphere of mutual trust that is crucial for the peace initiative. It is easy to see why Mr Vajpayee did not respond to the demand by Nagas from Manipur for the integration of all Naga-inhabited areas. It is also one of the demands of the NSCN (I-M) which has overshadowed the peace talks. But any assurance from the prime minister to the Nagas on this score would have ignited the tinder-box that the issue has become in Manipur. It would have been disastrous for New Delhi to win the game in Nagaland but to lose it in Manipur. The integration of all Naga-inhabited areas would mean a bifurcation of Manipur. It is always a better idea to try and win the people’s confidence with the economic argument. If it succeeds in Nagaland, the rest of the Northeast may rally behind it on its own. After all, only small groups of people wield the gun, be it in Nagaland, Manipur, Assam or Tripura. For most people, what matters are economic opportunities that can change lives.