As the BJP and Congress campaign for the 2014 elections in India, what is clearly missing from both party’s platforms is an agenda for the North-East.
This is evidenced by the fact that the current attention of both political parties is heavily focused on four states heading for assembly polls: Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. While the results of the Delhi election will preview national sentiment, the other three states are important from the point of view of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Rajasthan is an especially important battlefield – a victory in the assembly election there tends to translate into a national victory. A triumph for the BJP in the state could lead to a massive gain in the Lok Sabha elections.
Mizoram, the fifth state soon to hold elections, receives little attention from politicians or the media. This lack of attention given to the politics of the North-East is nothing new or unusual. While regional satraps elsewhere are given prominence, three-time Chief Ministers (CM) from the North-East, such as Tarun Gogoi of Assam, or Manik Sarkar of Tripura, do not receive similar coverage for their successive triumphs. Even bomb blasts or terrorist attacks in the region receive scarce coverage –– a perfect example being the recent blast in Imphal, not far from the Manipur Chief Minister’s office.
One of the key reasons for not giving the North-East a high priority, many argue, is the fact that it only sends 24 Members of Parlament to the Lok Sabha, out of which Assam alone sends 14. A perfect illustration of political numbers making the difference is the fact that Mamata Banerjee, Chair of the Trinamool Congress and CM of West Bengal, receives much more coverage for her strong stand on issues like the Teesta agreement and the land agreement, while Sarkar, who has been keen to play a constructive role in improving ties with Bangladesh, seldom gets any focus.
In economic terms too, the North-East has not been able to perform desirably. This is due to the security challenges plaguing the region as well as its neglect by the national leadership.
The government of India has tried to ensure that the North-East gets its due and for this purpose set up the Ministry for the Development of The North-Eastern region (DONER). Despite this, precious little has been done to actually give the region its due, in spite of its strategic location, abundance of natural resources and great sporting potential. Incidentally, with the region producing more and more sports personalities, like Gold-winning Olympian Mary Kom, things are beginning to change.
It is time, that both national parties changed this attitude. Both Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi need to hold more campaign rallies in the North-East and spell out their visions for the region. Modi, who is trying to emerge as an alternative to the existing establishment, could actually send a very positive signal by giving priority to a region where his party is not particularly strong. While Modi and his party often comment on security issues plaguing the North-East, and the weak approach of the central government towards Chinese incursions there, they rarely address the development issue head-on. Addressing these challenges in terms of India’s Look-East Policy may be beneficial as well.
Even Rahul Gandhi, who talks about inclusive growth and uplifting neglected sections of society, would do well to speak about the North-East.
Apart from the BJP and Congress, it is also the duty of the CMs of relatively powerful Eastern states like Orissa and West Bengal, who have been speaking of forming an Eastern club, to incorporate the agendas of North-Eastern states. The North-Eastern states in return should also form a similar group of their own so that they can pressurize the central government to address the region more robustly.
It is time that New Delhi stopped pointing fingers at outside forces for the problems in the North-East. It is time to look within, and a good start would be some serious debates between the two national parties on their respective visions for the North-East.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based columnist