October 26, 2013

THE NORTH-EASTERN CONFEDERACY


THE NEW ALLIANCE ON THE BLOCK


Source: Wikipedia
Just ahead of the 2014 General Elections, a group of parties from the North-east have come together to form the North East Regional Political Front (NERPF) with the novel aim of 'safeguarding the interest of the people of the region'. Earlier this week, representatives from 11 regional outfits came together in Guwahati to announce this new alliance which is expected to be a significant player in the run up to the big polls. While former CM of Assam and AGP chief Prafulla Kumar Mahanta was appointed as the chief adviser of this new front, other advisers include Paban Kumar Chamling - the Chief Minister of Sikkim, former CMs Donkupar Roy of Meghalaya and Joram Thanga of Mizoram. Serving Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio of the NPP who won a second consecutive term earlier this year beating the Congress was named as the chief convener of the NERPF. The leaders of  the new coalition which includes the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the Naga People's Front (NPF), the United Democratic Party (UDP), the Hill State People's Democratic Party (HSPDP), the Manipur People's Party (MPP), the Manipur State Congress Party (MSCP), the Manipur People's Democratic Front (MPDP), the Mizo National Party (MNP), the People's Party of Arunachal (PPA) , the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) and the Indigenous People's Front of Twipra (IPFT) has left its doors open for other regional players to join them. In fact, this news has created a flutter in political circles. Former Punjab CM Surjit Singh Barnawala of the Akali Dal was present on the occasion to express his support and even TDP chief Chandra Babu Naidu is said to be in touch with its leaders.

The NERPF seems to be making the right kind of noise at least for the time being. Belonging to a part of the country that has largely been ignored by the political establishment in New Delhi, the front has taken the cause of the North east, promising to work for the region that has never got its due, either politically or economically. It has been critical of China's claims over the state Arunachal, asking for measures against Chinese incursion into Indian territory. Battered by years of neglect and insurgency, the region lags behind the rest of the country in terms of development. The NERPF has called for Beijing to stop work on all dams in the upper stages of the Brahmaputra which is the lifeline of the region, with immediate effect. On similar lines, it has taken a strong stand against Bangladesh, asking the government not to go ahead with the proposed the enclave swapping deal with our eastern neighbor. Besides, it has called for the deportation of illegal migrants who have crossed over to our side. The alliance has asked the Centre to withdraw the Arms Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) - an emotive issue, especially in the troubled state of Manipur, from all of the North-east. Like all regional players, it has promised to provide reservation in Central government jobs for the people of the region, the rebuilding of the Slitwell Road and implementation of the Look East policy which seems to have lost its steam over the years. Lastly, the NERPF has asked for the scrapping of the Concurrent list and transferring all the subjects in it to the State List - the eternal dream of all federalists. 

While the leaders may claim to be working in the interests of the region, there is more to it than than just that. In spite of all the hype over the Third Front, the reality on the ground is that regional parties in the smaller states, except for the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab, the SDF in Sikkim and the NPF in Nagaland are in the decline. In the North-east, these outfits are losing ground to the Congress which has made the region one of its strong holds across the nation. The party under the leadership of Tarun Gogoi won a third straight term in 2011 assembly elections, winning 79 of the 126 seats as the AGP was reduced to single digit. In alliance with the BJP, the party won a single seat in the 2009 Lok Sabha. Earlier this year, the HSPDP and the UDP could only win 12 seats in total in Meghalaya as the IPFT drew a blank in Tripura where the Red fever was on a high. The MNP has just 5 MLAs in the Mizoram legislature, as opposed to the ruling INC which won 32 seats on its own; the PPA has only 4 seats in Arunachal and the MSCP has 5 MLAs in Manipur. Considering the dismal state that majority of the constituents find themselves in, the move will send across the right message to the electorate while helping to consolidate the anti-Congress votes. In a place like north-eastern India where the political space is fragmented amongst smaller parties, all catering to a section of the society, the united front will give a big boost to the regional players who are keen to win back their lost space. However, other than the Congress, the North-East Front will have to fight out with a lot of other regional outfits who may end up defeating the purpose of this move.

Probably, the biggest challenge that this group posses is to the Congress. Presently the party is ruling in six of the eight states and in each of these legislatures, it has above sixty percent of the seats. In the 2009 polls, the party, on its own won 13 out of the 25 Lok Sabha seats from th North-east. Even its ally in the UPA - the Nationalist Congress Party has a substantial support base here. However, with the formation of the front, the anti-Congress vote will not get split, at least to a big extent, like it used to in the past. In an election wherein the INC is facing issues like anti-incumbency, corruption and inflation, the NERPF is emerging as its main nemesis in the region. With pundits predicting that the Congress may struggle in 2014, losing even a few seats to the opposition will cost the UPA, especially in case of a hung assembly. The NDA and the BJP on the other hand seem to be quite happy with this development. In fact, the presence of the former Punjab CM on the eve of the announcement of this grand alliance is seen as NDA's support to it. BJP's only ally from here is the former Speaker of the Lower House - P A Sangma, whose candidature was supported by the Opposition camp for Presidency. However, his party's disastrous debut in the 2013 Meghalaya elections has proved that he has lost all his influence even in his native Garo Hills. As such, the NDA has no other option but to cos up to the NERPF before the polls. In coming days, it is expected that the Left parties may try to woo this coalition also. Meanwhile, keeping their cards close to their chest, the group has said that it will maintain 'equi-closeness' to both the UPA and the NDA ahead of the big polls.

With the General Elections just about eight months away, there is a lot that the NERPF and its constituents have to do to put on a formidable show. Firstly, many of the parties here have to build their organization at the grass root level and rejuvenate the cadre. Secondly, the Front should work towards getting other important players in the region like the All India United Democratic Front and the Bodoland People's Front into its fold so as to garner more support and votes. Also, seat sharing is expected to get murkier in the coming days and a few parties may even walk out. In an area like the North-east with complex issues, where solving one issue can lead to protests from several other groups, keeping the folk together, both before and after the polls may even become a nightmare. The big question will be how many seats the NERPF win in 2014. At present, it highly unlikely that the alliance will win more than 7 seats. However, to make sure that it has political influence in the process of formation of the next government in New Delhi, it has to win at least 10 to 15 seats in the next Parliament. In the situation where both the UPA and NDA fall short of the magic figure, this group will be one of the most sought after in the post-poll scenario. Whatever be the fate of this confederacy, I hope that the next Union government gives India's North-east the attention that it truly deserves and helps it to march on the path of progress, healing the scars of decades of insurgency and maladministration.