Voting amidst terror

Print edition : March 14, 2003

Voters in the three insurgency-affected northeastern States of Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya exercise their franchise under the shadow of the gun.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI in Agartala, Shillong and Kohima

Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar addressing an election rally.-

IN an atmosphere of latent tension and terror, heavy security preceded by a thorough survey of the region by Chief of the Army Staff General N.C. Vij marked the February 26 round of Assembly elections in the insurgency-affected States of Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya.

The situation remained tense during the entire period of electioneering, particularly in Tripura and Nagaland. As many as 789 of the 2,372 polling stations in Tripura were declared sensitive. Ten battalions of the Tripura State Rifles, 19 of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), 12 of the Border Security Force (BSF) and three of the Assam Rifles were put on poll duty. Three battalions of the Army, which had been withdrawn from Tripura during the Kargil War, were reassigned to carry out anti-insurgency operations.

The ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Tripura lost nearly 50 of its members and supporters in pre-poll violence engineered by the underground tribal outfit, National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), which is supporting the Congress(I)-Indigenous National Party of Tripura (INPT) alliance (Frontline, February 28). (The Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT) adopted the name INPT following its merger with the Tripura Upajati Juba Samity (TUJS) and the Tripura Volunteers Force. The CPI(M)-led Left Front government repeatedly complained to Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh that the Congress(I)-INPT combine was hand in glove with the outlawed NLFT and the leaders were using NLFT insurgents to unleash a reign of terror in CPI(M) strongholds in the four districts of the State North Tripura, Dhalai, West Tripura and South Tripura.

The government pointed out that the insurgents planned to prevent Left Front supporters from exercising their franchise. Similar terror tactics were adopted by the IPFT, with the help of NLFT insurgents, during the elections to the Tripura Tribal Area Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) in 2000 to capture it (Frontline, June 9, 2000). The 30-member Council was under the control of the CPI(M) until May 2000.

This time, however, the CPI(M) was more alert and was prepared to counter the insurgent menace. The party organised several campaigns in various parts of the State, including the tribal-dominated hilly regions, to expose the NLFT-Congress(I)-INPT nexus. Several CPI(M) leaders, including West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and party Polit Bureau member Prakash Karat, addressed election rallies in the State.

Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, who is a candidate from Dhanpur constituency in Sonamura subdivision of West Tripura, is confident of victory for the Left Front for the third consecutive term. Of the 60 Assembly seats, the CPI(M) contested 55, the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) fielded two candidates each and the Forward Bloc one. In the 1998 elections, while the CPI(M) won 38 seats, the CPI and the RSP got two each. The Congress(I) got 13 seats. Of the remaining five seats, the TUJS got four and the TNV one.

While, the Congress(I) contested 42 seats, the INPT contested 18 of the 20 reserved seats. Congress(I) State unit president Birajit Singh told Frontline that the alliance was sure to form the government this time. There were strong reservations among a section of Congress(I) workers and supporters against the party's electoral tie-up with the INPT, which is backed by extremist forces. Although the Bharatiya Janata Party has no base in Tripura, it contested 40 seats. The Trinamul Congress, which was formed by former Congress(I) Chief Minister Sudhir Ranjan Majumdar, has virtually been disbanded, with Majumdar and his supporters returning to the Congress(I) on the eve of the polls. The final phase of the campaign was attended by party president Sonia Gandhi. Other Congress(I) leaders who joined the campaign were Ghulam Nabi Azad, Santosh Mohan Dev, Priyaranjan Das Munshi and Congress(I) Chief Ministers of Chhatishgarh and Manipur, Ajit Yogi and Okram Ibobi Singh, respectively.

IN Nagaland, in the context of the changed political situation, for the Congress(I) the elections will not be the walkover that it was in 1998. In 1998 most of the parties were compelled to boycott the polls in the face of threats from Naga extremists and the Congress(I) won 56 seats. But this time, after the Naga extremist National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Issac-Muivah) had a dialogue with the Central government and stated it had nothing to do with the elections, the various political fronts mainly comprising regional outfits campaigned hard in a keen battle for the 60 Assembly seats.

While the Congress(I) led by Chief Minister S.C. Jamir put up candidates all the 60 seats, its rival, the Nagaland People's Front (NPF) led by Neiphiu Rio, former Home Minister in an earlier Cabinet of Jamir, fielded 54 candidates. Rio had left the Congress(I) in October 2002 to form the NPF. Led by former Chief Minister K.L. Chishi, the Nationalist Democratic Movement (NDM), which contested 25 seats, is also a force to reckon with and might play the balancing role in the event of a hung Assembly. The BJP, led by former Chief Minister Hokishe Sema, put up candidates in 38 seats.

In 11 constituencies, it was a straight fight either between the Congress(I) and the NPF or the BJP. While 16 constituencies witnessed triangular contests, multi-cornered contests were witnessed in the rest of the constituencies, thereby complicating the position of the ruling Congress(I).

During electioneering, Jamir launched frontal attacks on the NSCN(I-M) and accused it of meddling in the elections.

IN the outgoing 60-member Meghalaya Assembly, the Congress(I) had 16 members and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) 15. The rest of the seats were shared between the BJP, which had three MLAs, and six regional parties such as the United Democratic party (UDP), the People's Democratic Movement (PDM), the Hill State People's Democratic Party (HSPDP) and the Garo National Council (GNC). In the past five years, almost all the MLAs became Ministers at one time or other, thanks to horse-trading.

A coalition government was formed in Meghalaya following the alliance between the Congress(I) and the NCP. But, on the eve of the February 26 Assembly elections, differences developed between the Congress(I) and the NCP and the government collapsed. The two parties fielded candidates of their own in all the 60 constituencies. Similarly, in the absence of a pre-poll alliance, other regional parties also fielded candidates separately. This time there are also two new regional outfits the Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement (KHNAM) of the militant Khasi Students' Union and the Meghalaya Democrtaic Party, a breakaway group of the UDP.

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