Even as Tripura and Meghalaya get ready for the next round of Assembly elections in an atmosphere of violence and threats by extremist groups, Nagaland faces the polls in a relatively relaxed mood thanks to the ongoing peace efforts.
THE States of Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland are going to the polls on February 26 with a major, common issue on hand - insurgency. Altogether 180 seats - 60 in each State - are at stake. However, the political composition of these States is not identical. While Tripura is ruled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front, Meghalaya is run by a coalition of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress(I) under the banner of the People's Forum of Meghalaya (PFM), and Nagaland by the Congress (I).
Despite counter-insurgency operations by a joint command of the Army, the paramilitary forces and the police, Tripura continues to be in the grip of militancy. In the run-up to the elections, the banned outfit of tribal militants, the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), has unleashed a reign of terror. It has stepped up attacks on leaders and activists of the Left parties.
Ever since the 1993 elections, the NLFT, bent on preventing a Left Front victory, has resorted to murder and abduction of CPI(M) cadres. On January 14, NLFT extremists gunned down three CPI(M) supporters and abducted one activist at the Assam Basti area under the Fatikroy Assembly constituency in North Tripura. On the same day, at Champly in Khoai subdivision of West Tripura, the militants killed two CPI(M) supporters and abducted three others.
Gautam Das, member of the State CPI(M) secretariat, told Frontline that since the announcement of the election date on January 11, such incidents had been reported every day from different parts of the State. Das said that encouraged by the poll alliance between the Congress(I) and the Indigenous National Party of Tripura (INPT), the NLFT's political wing, militants had been indulging in violence throughout the State with a view to disrupting the poll process and preventing free and fair elections. The INPT, previously known as the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT), was renamed INPT in 2002, following the merger of the Tripura Upajati Juba Samity (TUJS) and the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) with it.
The Congress(I), which won 13 seats in the 1998 elections, entered into a secret electoral understanding with the IPFT during the elections to the Tripura Tribal Area Autonomous District Council in 2000. In the Lok Sabha byelection from West Tripura in 2002, the Congress(I) openly allied with the INPT. Its candidate Manik Deb contested with the support of the INPT. Deb was, however, defeated by the CPI (M) candidate, Khagen Das. Since then the Congress(I)-INPT alliance has continued. This time the Congress(I) is contesting 42 seats, leaving the rest to the INPT.
The 30-member Council was under the control of the CPI(M) until May 2000. The IPFT captured the Council with the help of the NLFT, which unleashed a reign of terror before and during the elections - abducting relatives of Left party leaders, killing their supporters, burning houses of non-tribal people and threatening voters with dire consequences if they did not vote for candidates representing the IPFT. Even before the election result was announced, the NLFT had given a poll boycott call and imposed a "ban'' on other parties contesting the polls. However, it has not given a call for the boycott of the Assembly elections, apparently because the INPT is very much in the fray. But it has chosen to terrorise people supporting the Left parties by killing and abducting activists and members of the ruling Front.
The CPI(M) has 38 legislators in the 60-member Assembly, its allies, the CPI and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), have two members each, the Congress(I) has 13, the TUJS four and the TNV one.
The Left Front has already released its list of candidates. Baidyanath Majumdar, CPI(M) leader and convener of the Left Front, said that while the CPI(M) would contest 55 seats, the CPI and the RSP would contest two each. The Forward Bloc has been allotted one seat. Of the 55 CPI(M) candidates, 15 are first-time nominees. One Minister and six sitting MLAs have been dropped.
IN Meghalaya, the ruling Congress(I)-NCP coalition is showing signs of breaking up on the eve of the Assembly elections. The two parties, along with regional outfits such as the United Democratic Party (UDP), the Meghalaya Democratic Party (MDP), the Hill States People's Democratic Party (HSPDP) and the People's Democratic Party (PDP), have decided to maintain the coalition until the polls. But the political equations are expected to change from February 7, the last day for filing nominations.
The Congress(I) has already released its list of candidates for the 60 constituencies spread over the Khasi, Jayanti and Garo Hills, declaring that it has severed its ties with the NCP. On January 8, All India Congress(I) Committee (AICC) secretary Mani Shankar Aiyar said in New Delhi: "We have no truck with the NCP in Meghalaya. At present we are in government with the NCP. The NCP and the Congress (I) have announced that they will contest all 60 seats in Meghalaya. We are going to contest against each other and we are confident that the Congress (I) will form the next government in the State.''
Politics in Meghalaya is marked by defections and splits. Since the February 1998 Assembly polls, the government in this tiny State has changed six times following the collapse of the United Democratic Party (UDP)-led coalition headed by E.K. Mawlong in November 2001. After a month-long political turmoil, the PFM, with Flinder Anderson Khonglam as Chief Minister, managed to get the support of 56 of the 60 MLAs. The PFM consists of all the 13 MLAs of Mawlong's UDP, legislators belonging to the Congress(I), the NCP, the Meghalaya Democratic Party (MDP), the HSPDP, and the PDP, besides an independent. It was apparent, that Khonglam, although an independent MLA then, had been chosen as Chief Minister in order to avoid possible bickerings over the post among the dominant members within the alliance. The Opposition group includes three BJP MLAs and one from the Garo National Council (GNC).
After coming to power, Khonglam, who later joined the NCP, said that his endeavour would be to bring the BJP and the GNC into the PFM coalition and "create history in the country by forming an all-party government in Meghalaya". Asked then whether the BJP, which was in Opposition, would like to be seen in the company of its arch rival Congress(I), the Chief Minister said: "Anything is possible in Meghalaya politics.''
Political observers are inclined to agree with this assessment of Meghalaya politics. There will be no pre-poll alliance among parties running the coalition government. They will fight against each other in multi-cornered contests. But there will be no hesitation on their part to form a new coalition after the electoral battle is over. While the NCP plans to contest all the 60 seats, the BJP has decided to field 35-40 candidates.
Meanwhile, candidates from Garo Hills are already preparing for a long ordeal, thanks to diktats issued by militants. About 26 MLAs will represent the Garo Hills. The problem for these legislators will come from the two main militant groups - the banned Achik National Volunteers Council (ANVC) and the People's Liberation Front (PLF). Both organisations have issued a warning, calling upon all legislators to work according to the agenda set by them. The ANVC has ordered that the candidates, if elected, should work towards achieving a separate State - `Greater Garoland' - for the Garos.
ELECTIONS to the Nagaland Assembly will be held in a different situation altogether. In the backdrop of the ongoing peace talks between the Centre and Isaac Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, chairman and general secretary respectively of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM), the ruling Congress(I) is not as confident as it had been during previous polls of getting a 100 per cent majority.
Taking advantage of a poll boycott call by the NSCN(I-M) and other militant groups such as the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland and the Naga National Council (NNC), the Congress(I) had swept the last three Assembly elections and the Lok Sabha polls. In the 60-member House, the Congress(I) has none to oppose the government headed by S.C. Jamir.
Although Muivah had stated that the NSCN (I-M) was not interested in elections since the talks with the Centre still remained inconclusive and there were several issues to be resolved to end the 50-year-old Naga problem, political observers believe that the peace talks have already created a congenial atmosphere in the State. They further feel that the NSCN(I-M) will neither call for a poll boycott nor interfere in the poll process. But the changing attitude of the NSCN(I-M) is likely to encourage some regional parties to contest the elections throwing a challenge to the Congress(I). However, the picture is not clear yet.
Jamir told Frontline that the peace talks in New Delhi would not affect the Congress(I)'s election prospects. He said that he had asked the NSCN(I-M) to implement at ground level its commitment not to interfere in the poll process.
In order to counter the ruling Congress(I), the BJP, which hardly has any base in the State, is seeking a tie-up with other political parties. Informed sources said that the BJP was going ahead with its plans to forge an alliance with some regional outfits. Former Congress(I) Chief Minister and State BJP chief Hokishe Sema claimed that talks were on with some parties and that they would soon form an alliance. "Our aim is to prevent Jamir from returning to power. Any split in the Opposition will ensure a Congress(I) victory,'' he said.
Interestingly, the Samata Party is said to be all set to form an electoral alliance with the Naga People's Front (NPF), formed recently in Kohima by some dissident Congress(I) leaders.