IT is essentially a three-cornered contest in Arunachal Pradesh, but the entry of a fourth contestant, the Nagaland Peoples Front (NPF), the ruling party of Nagaland, has introduced an element of uncertainty into the October 13 Assembly elections.
The Congress, the ruling party in the State, is contesting all the 60 seats. In fact, it sounded the bugle in February 2008 itself with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announcing a Rs.10,000-crore development package for the State during his maiden visit there. The Congress is trying to showcase the Prime Ministers package, which includes a Rs.5,500-crore, 1,840-kilometre trans-Arunachal Pradesh highway project from Tawang to Mahadevpur, as proof of the partys commitment to develop the State.
Apart from Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu, former Chief Minister Gegong Apang, his son and former Union Minister Omak Apang, Home Minister Jarbom Gamlin, Finance Minister Kaliko Pul, and Arunachal Pradesh Congress Committee president and Public Works Minister Nabam Tuki have been renominated from their respective constituencies. The Congress high command sprang a surprise when it denied the ticket to sitting legislator and chairman of the Mon Autonomous Region Demand Committee (MARDC) Rev. Tsona Gontse Rinpoche, who is a close associate of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader in self-exile in India.
In the 2004 Assembly elections, three Congress nominees Dorjee Khandu and former Ministers Tsering Gyurmey and Nabam Tuki (the present PCC chief), were elected unopposed. While Gyurmey was the lone candidate to file the papers for the Dirang seat, Tuki and Khandu were elected after their opponents, the Arunachal Congress candidate in Sagalee and an independent in Mukto respectively, withdrew their papers.
The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) is going it alone and will contest 40 seats. State NCP President L. Wanglet told Frontline that his party hoped to win a large chunk of the seats and claimed that the NCP would play an important role in the formation of the next government. The party is trying to woo rebels in the Congress camp, hoping for a repeat of the 2004 poll windfall when 13 Congress aspirants who were denied the ticket contested as independents and won. Wanglet pointed out that almost all NCP leaders had at one point of time been Congressmen, and some of them had become legislators and Ministers and nurtured their respective constituencies well. The NCP is desperately hoping that the Congress rebels will vertically split the votes of the ruling party and thus help the candidates of non-Congress parties. In 2004, the NCP won two seats in this fashion though both legislators later joined the Congress.
The NCP has made good governance a major poll plank. It has armed its campaign machinery with statistics that, it says, will prove that the backwardness of the State has been due to bad governance, and particularly the governments inability to ensure that development funds reached the people. The party also plans to make big dams another campaign issue and promises to review the power projects planned and power-related agreements signed by the State government with different power companies.
Another major opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), suffered a jolt ahead of the polls when its articulate leader, Kiren Rijuju, joined the Congress. The BJP was banking heavily on the former MPs rising popularity to woo young voters.
The BJP plans to contest around 35 seats. According to Chandrasekhar Rao, a senior leader in charge of the partys affairs in the north-eastern States, the party will have informal understandings with independents and regional parties for the remaining seats. We will not have any pre-poll alliance but we are open to post-poll alliances, he said. Like the NCP, the BJP hopes to manage a good show by taking advantage of the internal feud and disgruntlement in the ruling party over ticket distribution. In 2004, the BJP won nine seats but all the nine legislators later joined the Congress.
The October 13 elections will help the BJP check if the voters of these nine constituencies had actually accepted the BJP ideology or whether the 2004 victories were because of the popularity of the candidates, as is often claimed by the Congress. The BJPs vote share increased from 25.16 per cent in 1999 to 28 per cent in 2004 while the Congress vote share declined from 51.57 per cent to 36 per cent. In 1999, the BJP contested 24 seats but failed to win even one. In 2004 it contested 38 and won nine.
Kiren Rijuju has dashed the BJPs hopes this time in the same way the States longest-serving Chief Minister, Gegong Apang, did before the 2004 Assembly polls. Apang then ended his year-long honeymoon with the BJP and rejoined the Congress along with his Cabinet colleagues. This was a major jolt for the BJP, which was looking forward to ride on the crest of his popularity. Earlier, in August 2003, Arunachal Pradesh became the first State in the region to be governed by the BJP when Apang and MLAs supporting him joined the party.
The NPF has decided to put up candidates in 12 constituencies in Tirap and Changlang districts. These districts have sizable populations of Naga tribes. Shurhozelie Liezietsu, NPF president, says that the two districts are the most backward ones in Arunachal Pradesh and that the primary objective of the NPF, if elected, will be to ensure the judicious use of development funds to develop them on a par with the rest of the country.
The NPF has already decided to change its nomenclature to the Naga Peoples Front to broaden the scope of its political activities beyond Nagaland. But, for the October 13 elections, it will have to put up candidates under its original nomenclature because of some technicalities.
Poll pundits predict that the performance of the NPF will have important political ramifications in two other north-eastern States, Assam and Manipur.
The NPFs decision to contest created a political storm in the State with the influential All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU) leading the protests. AAPSU general secretary Takam Tatung said that anyone who contested under the NPF banner would be treated as anti-Arunachalee. Even if someone manages to win the election as an NPF candidate, he or she will not be allowed to enter Itanagar, he said.
The student body also submitted a memorandum to the Governor, Gen (Retd.) J.J. Singh, to invoke the provisions of Article 371(H), which bestows special responsibility on the Governor of Arunachal Pradesh with respect to law and order, and declare Tirap and Changlang disturbed areas in the wake of the growing insurgent activities by both factions of National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN).
The NPF has come to contest the elections in Arunachal Pradesh only to serve the interest of the two factions of the NSCN. If the NPF had no ulterior motives, then it should have contested the elections from Itanagar or elsewhere instead of Tirap and Changlang, said Tatung. He alleged that the NPFs decision to contest the polls in Tirap and Changlang was to further the NSCNs game plan to include areas falling under these districts in the proposed greater Nagalim. The NSCN(Isak-Muivah) has been demanding the creation of a single administrative entity integrating all Naga-inhabited areas in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur with Nagaland. However, the three States have opposed the demand.
The Arunachal Pradesh Assembly passed a resolution in February 2004 recommending the creation of two autonomous councils one comprising Tawang and West Kameng districts in the west known as the Mon region and another comprising Tirap and Changlang districts in the east known as the Patkai region. However, New Delhi is reluctant to create them in this strategically located State bordering China, Myanmar and Bhutan.
Shurhozelie, however, argues that the Indian Constitution does not prohibit any political party from contesting in any State. He also says that the NPFs decision to contest in Arunachal Pradesh had nothing to do with the larger issue of Naga integration.
After being toppled by his rival Gegong Apang in July 2003, former Chief Minister Mukut Mithi alleged that the NSCN (I-M) had hatched a conspiracy to dislodge him from power by directing all 12 legislators from the two Naga-dominated districts to withdraw support to his government.
A 37-member Ministry headed by Apang was sworn in after the Mithi-led Congress government was reduced to a minority when 31 of the 58 Congress MLAs, including 17 Ministers, resigned from the party.
The entry of the NPF into Arunachal Pradesh has not only stirred a controversy but made the poll battle interesting.