Call it the big bluff

Sensitive issue

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 27.09.07

Judging by reports, New Delhi seems determined to go ahead with its efforts to develop the Northeast. Earlier too such noises had been made, particularly after major incidents of violence. This time, however, there is a difference. The Centre wants the region to enjoy the benefits of globalization in order to acquire capital and expertise from abroad so that the seven sisters and Sikkim would shine. To sell these states to the foreign moneybags, minister for Northeast, Mani Shankar Aiyar, will lead a delegation of chief ministers to Bangkok in the first week of October. This event was preceded by another excursion to New York, this time by Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the deputy chariman of the Planning Commission, for a four-day interaction with American businessmen.

The Centre has 50 thousand crore at its disposal for the purpose, but Aiyar feels that technical knowhow is required for the proper utilization of funds. Hence his decision to visit Thailand. This is not only consistent with the prime minister’s ‘Look East’ policy, but, Aiyar said, it is also in keeping with the issue of ethnicity. Belonging to the same Mongoloid stock as the Thais, people in the region, barring those in Tripura, should have no trouble in identifying with them.

However, a question crops up in this context and it is related to the issue of identity. Separatists in the region have always argued that they have little in common with the Indians on the mainland. The former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, had unwillingly given them a boost when he told a gathering in Kohima that he had brought with him friendship from the “people of India”. Now, by raising the same issue, the government is stoking the fire once again.

Sensitive issue

It would be instructive for the government to remember that in 1979 the concept of “Seven Sisters’ United Liberation Army” had been adopted at a conference in Sibsagar, Assam, which was attended, among others, by the then ambassador of Thailand to India. That conference had been followed by anti-foreigner agitations in the region, particularly in Assam and in Tripura. Talking of Tripura, it will be interesting if Manik Sarkar or any of his ministers accompanies Aiyar to Bangkok. It was already known that Sarkar would not be going to New York.

Mischief-makers in the Northeast often exploit the issue of ethnicity to create unrest in the region. Even if the Centre feels that no damage will be done by opening the doors wide, it must remember that the Northeast is sensitive towards notions of ethnicity and, therefore, must choose its words with care.

If Aiyar is expected to be the leading light in Bangkok, the New York show, titled ‘Incredible India @ 60’, had Montek Singh Ahluwalia as the chief guest. But what is expected to be achieved? What are the specific areas that can attract foreigners? Indeed Aiyar himself laid bare the sad state of the Northeast when he said that he will seek to rope in technology for infrastructure development in Bangkok. So if infrastructure is absent, then is there any need for the New York rich to fly in? Moreover, infrastructure implies roads, bridges and so on. Is it to be seriously believed that the job cannot be done with the resources available at home?

These are uncomfortable questions but they need to be raised. The first thing that an investor will demand is a conducive business atmosphere. The Northeast does not offer that. Otherwise, Indian investors would have been the first to jump in the fray. In New York, the tourism potential of the region was slated to be held up but could not a beginning have been made by first convincing domestic tourists that it is safe to travel there? The New York and Bangkok shows are publicity events where investors are bound to make polite inquires. But then what?