THE campaigning in the northeastern States has not been different from that in the rest of the country as far as the intention of the two major parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I), is concerned - to project the elections as an Atal Bihari Vajpayee vs Sonia Gandhi contest. Each of these, bolstered by the rally of Prime Minister Vajpayee and Opposition Leader and Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi respectively in Assam in the first fortnight of April, has tried to whip up electoral support centred around the charisma of the two leaders. Local issues were also highlighted, the promises made being the same as those of previous elections, which were never kept.
Even the BJP's allies in some of the northeastern States have depended heavily on the "Vajpayee factor". However, others like the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) hold successive Congress(I) and BJP governments at the Centre and the five-decade-long Congress(I) rule in Assam responsible for the State's burning problems such as infiltration, insurgency and unemployment. State BJP president Indramoni Bora and the leader in charge of party affairs in the northeastern States V. Satish have maintained that Vajpayee's image and growing popularity will help the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) improve its tally in Assam and the other northeastern States. Legendary Assamese singer and BJP candidate for Guwahati Lok Sabha constituency, Bhupen Hazarika, sang in praise of Vajpayee at every election meeting. The BJP also lined up several Bollywood actors such as Shatrughan Sinha, Hema Malini and Dara Singh to praise Vajpayee at election rallies.
On the other hand, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi made it a point to assert at every election meeting that the party under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi will sweep the Lok Sabha polls in the State. The Congress(I) candidate from Guwahati, Kirip Chalia, also pledged "loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family" to win the hearts of traditional party supporters.
However, for voters like Hem Chandra Rabha of Boko in the Guwahati parliamentary constituency neither Vajpayee nor Sonia Gandhi is important. He said: "The representative whom we are going to elect is more important. After all, we have to analyse carefully as to which candidate would work for the development of our areas. During the election campaign tall promises are made. But they are hardly kept." The BJP and the AGP accuse the Congress(I), which won 10 of the 14 seats in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, of failing to highlight the burning issues of the State in Parliament. In that year, the AGP drew a blank and the BJP won two seats.
The Congress(I) and the BJP have also projected the infiltration issue, with the BJP reiterating its promise made in 1999 to scrap the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983 in order to exploit the sentiments of indigenous Assamese voters, the traditional support base of the AGP. The Congress(I), in contrast, vowed to oppose the BJP's move in Parliament in order to win over the minority community. The AGP accused both the parties of politicising the issue and keeping it alive merely for electoral gains.
The State unit of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, which initially was inclined towards the AGP, decided to support Congress(I) candidates after a discussion with Gogoi and the All India Congress Committee(I) observer for Assam and former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh. The Jamiat's support is likely to work to the Congress(I)'s advantage as the former is influential with a large section of Muslim voters, particularly the immigrant settlers of the Chars of Brahamaputra. The BJP has made efforts to make inroads into the tea plantation belt with the same promises that the Congress(I) has made in all elections but hardly kept - more wages, drinking water and healthcare facilities.
In Tripura, campaigning by the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) for the two Lok Sabha seats has remained focussed on two issues - installation of a secular government at the Centre and the achievements of the successive Left Front governments in the State. Huge crowds attended the election rallies of Left Front candidates and Chief Minister Manik Sarkar. Backwardness of the tribal areas has been exploited by insurgent groups such as the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT; both Biswamohan and Nayan Bashi factions) and the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) to persuade the tribal youth to take up arms against the state.
Significantly, this time round tribal people have mustered the courage to defy the diktats of the two militant outfits. Sustained campaign by the Left Front government to mobilise public opinion against insurgency seemed to have succeeded. "We have suffered for a long time because of insurgency. The militants take away the money that comes to our village for development work. We will not allow the militants to prevent us from participating freely in the election this time," said Mandadhari Debuburma of Bathanmura, an insurgency-affected tribal-dominated village near the India-Bangladesh border.
The BJP-Nationalist Trinamul Congress (NTC) combine, which has entered into a tie-up with the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT), focussed its campaign on the success of Vajpayee in "bringing back political stability" to the country and claimed that the Left Front failed to utilise the funds provided by the Centre. However, the allegations sounded hollow as during the 2002 Assembly elections, the BJP had campaigned against the Congress(I)-INPT alliance in a desperate bid to garner the support of the non-tribal people by exploiting the tribal-non-tribal divide. The State unit of the Congress(I) is handicapped by internal squabbles and even the "Sonia Gandhi factor" could not do any magic to motivate the warring factions to join hands.
In Manipur, with the insurgent groups imposing a ban on campaigning, there has practically been no election work for the April 26 polling in the Inner Manipur constituency. The only issue that has got prominence in the media is the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act from the State, a demand raised by several underground organisations. However, in the Outer Manipur constituency, where the militants' ban did not have much impact, the BJP succeeded in pushing through its campaign. The party claimed that there would be a massive flow of development funds into the constituency if it was voted back to power at the Centre.
Huge portraits of Vajpayee at the BJP office in Ukhrul, the home district of National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah) general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah, and other districts that fall under the constituency speak volumes about the party's efforts to woo the voters on the basis of the "Vajpayee factor". While the Congress(I) has no candidate in the constituency, the sitting MP of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Holkhomang Haokip, focussed his campaign on the development works he had initiated.
During the 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the voter turnout in the hill areas of Manipur was very poor as the NSCN (I-M) had called for a poll boycott.
In the Tura constituency of Meghalaya, former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Agitok Sangma has spent more campaigning time explaining the change in his poll symbol, from the NCP's clock to grass and flower of the NTC, than focussing on other issues. However, he had to praise Vajpayee to convince the voters that his joining hands with Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress (now NTC), an alliance partner of the BJP in the NDA, was for the better.
To capitalise on the sentiments of the Christian Garo people of Sangma's constituency, the Congress(I) highlighted the attacks on churches and Christians during Vajpayee's tenure. Pamphlets were distributed, purportedly by the Congress(I), to warn voters that if Sangma was re-elected "the Garos would not be able to eat beef as Purno has joined the BJP". Sangma, however, countered the Congress(I) campaign by pointing out that though Vajpayee had been the Prime Minister for the last five years, Garos did not have to stop eating beef or going to church.
In Arunachal Pradesh, the ruling BJP's efforts to create a Vajpayee wave fizzled out as the vexed issue of Chakma-Hajong refugees came to the fore with the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU) calling for a poll boycott to protest against the Election Commission's decision to grant the right to vote to the refugees. The Congress(I) too joined the AAPSU campaign and accused the BJP of double-speak on the issue. The Congress(I) hopes to retain both the Lok Sabha seats in the State, which it won in 1999.
In Mizoram, the three major Opposition parties - the Congress(I), the Mizoram People's Conference (MPC) and the Zoram Nationalist Party (ZNP) - have formed the Mizo Secular Force (MSF) and adopted the "danger of Hindu fundamentalism" as its main campaign issue. The MSF candidate for the only Lok Sabha seat in the State is Laltluangliana Khiangte. The MSF has branded the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) as "pro-Hindu and anti-Christian". On the other hand, the MNF, a constituent of the NDA, highlighted peace and good governance as achievements of both the Vajpyee-led NDA government and the Zoramthanga-led MNF government in the State. The MNF has renominated its sitting MP Vanlalzawma.