Northeastern challenges

Published : Apr 23, 2004 00:00 IST

in Guwahati

THE exchange took place sometime during the late Hiteswar Saikia's second stint as Assam Chief Minister (1991-95). Responding to accusations that the leaders of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the first regional party to have formed a government in the State, had spawned and had continued to have links with separatist and secessionist outfits like the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), AGP leader and former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta had said that that far from being in bed with such elements, the AGP was in fact "a regional party with a national outlook". Never one to allow a political opponent to have the last word, Hiteswar Saikia had countered by defining the Congress(I) in Assam as a "national party with a regional outlook".

These formulations, even admitting their mindlessness, do underline the sea change that has come about in the political dynamics as it finds expression in what, for want of a better word, may be called the `ideology' of political parties, and rather more clearly in periodic elections. This is certainly the case in Assam and the northeast of India, and perhaps in much of the rest of the country as well. A decade after the above formulations, the Congress(I) in Assam is not merely steadfastly regional in its outlook, but is so nationally as well, trying to appropriate the thunder of the regional parties in State after State. Indeed, this is so even of the Bharatiya Janata Patty which, despite its historic ideology of one nation one people and, ideally, also one religion and one language and one-everything, is happily trying to get into bed with the most exclusivist regional ideologies in the northeast of the country.

If the challenges posed by regionalism and its more virulent variations, like the explicitly secessionist insurgency in Nagaland and the not so covert secessionist aspirations of the Dravidian political parties, to the process of nation building and the consolidation of the Indian nation state was a major preoccupation of policymakers during the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, even though during those years that process was also idealistically seen to be going on in an almost seamless manner, the current preoccupations are rather the reverse.

Strictly speaking, regionalism has never lacked legitimacy, even political legitimacy. Whether the newly-independent Indian nation state should be a unitary state or a federal state was a key issue in the debates over the making of the Indian Constitution. The debate finally found a meeting point in a typical reconciliation, unity in diversity.

Indeed, the political legitimacy of regionalism predates these debates since the Congress(I) that led the freedom movement had, in the manner in which it had structured itself, acknowledged and formally recognised regional languages as the crucial element of the cultural inheritance that defined the Indian people. The linguistic reorganisation of States flowed logically from this perspective. The exercise has not yet ended, though language, at last overtly, has not Tbeen the deciding rationale for the creation of new States.

However, regional aspirations continued to be seen in the formative years of the Indian nation state as bespeaking a deviant, illegitimate and near treasonable ideology and state of mind. In fact, the production of academic works, with considerable assistance from foreign funding agencies, analysing regionalism, linguistic and `ethnic' nationalism, all under the broad rubric of `sub-nationalism', as either a promise or a threat, depending upon the ideological bent of the scholar and the agencies funding her or him, was and continues to be a thriving growth industry.

In contrast, and perhaps partly as a result of these exertions, and partly as a more true reflection of Indian reality, the ideology of regionalism has now become mainstream to which every political tendency subscribes, in fact if not in form. Despite protestations to the contrary and claims to be the only genuinely national party with an all-India spread, the Congress(I) has always been quick on the draw in promoting and exploiting the basest chauvinist passions, all in the name of regional gaurav (pride). How else can one explain the position taken by the Congress(I) and its allies who form the government in Maharashtra on the controversy over a recent book on Shivaji?

Hence, this attempt to consider the challenges that regionalism and the political formations that reflect such a perspective poses and, on the eve of General Elections 2004, faces, with Assam as a model and a pointer.

Historically, one of the strongest bastions of the Congress(I) with a grassroots tradition of Gandhian and militant participation in the freedom movement, Assam (like much of the rest of northern India) for the first time came under a non-Congress(I) dispensation in March 1978 in the elections to the State Assembly that followed the lifting of the national Emergency in 1977. Despite superficial differences, especially in the rhetoric and posturing, the successor government in Assam under the Janata Party that tried to appear to be rather sensitive to issues of regional concern than the Congress(I) was fundamentally no different from its predecessor.

In retrospect, it appears like a miracle that the Janata Party government headed by Golap Barbora survived for over a year. The inner details of what the Election Commission characterised as the `chequered history' of the Sixth State Assembly that had been constituted on March 3, 1978, are yet to be understood and analysed. The `low-points' of that rather unedifying history would comprise the events that led to and followed the collapse of the Janata Party government in September 1979 and of the short-lived Assam Janata Dal government headed by Jogen Hazarika in December 1979; the subsequent use made of constitutional provisions, such as the imposition of President's Rule and keeping an Assembly under `suspended animation' when a government collapses solely with a view to assisting the Congress (which had won just eight seats in the March 1978 elections) to secure defections and form two short-lived governments; and, finally the `constitutional compulsions' (another expression used by the Election Commission) cited to force, in the teeth of popular opposition mobilised by the leaders of the Assam agitation, the holding of the bloodstained elections of February 1983.

These events took place against the backdrop of the Assam agitation whose trajectory parallels and traverses these events. In due course, the Central government under Rajiv Gandhi cut a deal with the leaders of the Assam agitation and signed the Assam Accord, thus enabling the first explicitly regional party government to come to power in Assam in December 1985.

This was no path-breaking development, despite important differences in the social base of the AGP and the Congress(I) and the `sacrifice' the latter in Assam was persuaded to make to enable this political accommodation with what, in the beginning, appeared exclusivist regionalism of the AGP. If one were to ignore the accretions from the margin, the two parties share the same social base; have the same class character, though these themes are nowadays not articulated in such terms. The Congress(I), with its history and electoral needs, however, enlarged this social base over the years by building alliances from above with religious and linguistic minorities, tea garden labour and such like (the standard political science text book categorisation), while, the AGP, with its history and the support base it mobilised during the Assam agitation had a rather narrower social base - the so-called `ethnic Assamese', another standard political science textbook category.

"Hark, in thine ear: change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?"

The words and ideas, from a different age and a different context, have a striking relevance in the strangely shifting contours of regional politics in Assam. In the two decades since the signing of the Assam Accord and the birth of the AGP, the regional party has systematically raided into the Congress(I)'s so-called `traditional' but in fact marginal and marginalised social base while the Congress(I) in turn has progressively made adjustments, if not common cause, with the original, rather restricted, social base of the AGP.

"Why do you laugh? Change the names, and the tale is told of yourself." Other words, another context.

However, regionalism not merely as a `state of mind', but also as a formally constituted political party considerably predates the emergence of the AGP. The formation of explicitly regional parties, the Purbanchaliya Lok Parishad and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Dal, both comprising leaders who were once part of the Left political stream, goes back to the 1970s. Other, earlier, separatist and crypto-secessionist political formations with sectarian agendas and appeal, offering visions of an essentially diarchic, very loosely federated India were in existence before Independence and were vigorously arguing their case with the colonial government. Such visions have not died; they have been subsumed by other, better organised political structures like the AGP, as well as the professedly national parties like the Congress(I) and the BJP.

THE other States in the region present an analogous situation. Existing regional parties are derived from and are in opposition to the Congress(I) . This is so not merely in regard to the States that were once a part of Assam and so have a kind of continuity of political culture with Assam, but even of States such as Manipur, which were at no time part of Assam. Even Nagaland, where the unresolved issue of Naga insurgency makes the political situation problematic, presents a situation where both the Congress(I) and other political parties professedly more Nagaland-oriented than the Congress(I) necessarily have a complex relationship with all factions of the Naga insurgency; and articulate, as occasion demands, the agenda of Naga nationalism. For instance, on the issue of `Naga integration', all the political parties in Nagaland have the same opinion with not even nuances of difference - which is the same in the case of Manipur as well where, on the issue of Manipur's `territorial integrity', there is an across-the-board consensus.

The one exception to this general rule of the derivation of regionalism from the Congress(I) is Mizoram. The erstwhile rebels in Mizoram who fought a war as the Mizo National Front and are now ruling the State under the same name had no Congress(I) background. The same is the case with the People's Conference, a rather different kind of regional formation, which also had a stint of office, defeated the Congress(I) and was in turn defeated by the Congress(I) before the signing of the Mizoram peace accord. This perhaps explains why, in the two decades since the MNF sued for peace and signed the peace accord, there has been not the slightest sign of vacillation on the crucial issue of an end to insurgency and functioning within the ambit of the Constitution, no malcontent factions threatening to revive insurgency. The MNF has also taken periodic losses of political office in its stride. Even the split in the MNF was not related to any rethinking on the fundamental issues of war and peace in Mizoram. This sui generis quality of regionalism in Mizoram also perhaps explains its stability as a political formation.

To sum up, a brief excursion into unconstitutional or extra-constitutional politics, ranging from agitational politics, which of its nature cannot be free of violence, to secessionist insurgency is a necessary condition for the consolidation of regionalism and its political manifestation as a legitimate political party working within the ambit of the Constitution. However, even when it has consolidated itself and has formed apparently stable governments functioning within the ambit of the Constitution, regionalism has faced two, perhaps not unrelated, challenges, apart from the usual splits and homecomings from which no political party, or for that matter, no militant insurgency, is free.

One, the appropriation of its very `reason for existence' by professedly national parties, which play the regional card expertly, when required; and two, the emergence of fringe elements from within their ranks pushing the regional agenda to areas into which the leaders, softened by experience of political office and also perhaps by experience of the Indian reality, do not want to go, thus forcing these parties to engage in a bit of dishonest brinkmanship of simultaneously engaging in both constitutional and extra-constitutional politics. But then, even in this, the national parties can teach some lessons to the regional parties. One sees evidence of one kind or another of this in every State of the region, certainly in Assam, and also in areas outside the northeastern region.

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