North-eastern States

Stalwarts and surprises

Print edition : April 18, 2014

Purno Sangma, former Lok Sabha speaker, on his way to address an election rally in East Garo Hills in Meghalaya. He is the NPP candidate in Tura in the Garo Hills. At left is his daughter and fomer Union Minister Agatha Sangma. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Gegong Apang, former Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, returns to the BJP and is welcomed by party president Rajnath Singh, in New Delhi on February 19.

THE 25 seats of the seven north-eastern States and Sikkim play an important role in the numbers game at the Centre. Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Manipur elect two Lok Sabha members each, and Nagaland, Mizoram and Sikkim one each. In 2009, the Congress won six of these 11 seats, the CPI(M) two and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Naga People’s Front (NPF) and the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) one each.

The region as a whole grapples with problems of a similar nature, including insurgency involving ethnic outfits clamouring for overlapping ethnic homelands, a serious development deficit, illegal migrants, crippling unemployment, and poor connectivity. These are the issues that come into play in both Assembly and Lok Sabha elections across the region.

In Meghalaya, the return of former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Agitok Sangma to national electoral politics, ending six and a half years of retirement, has made the elections all the more interesting. He is contesting the Tura seat, comprising the Garo Hills region of Meghalaya, as a candidate of the National People’s Party (NPP), which he heads. In 2009, Sangma’s daughter and former Union Minister Agatha Sangma won the seat on the NCP ticket. She first won the seat in a byelection in 2008 to become the youngest member of the 14th Lok Sabha while making her debut in electoral politics.

Purno Sangma is in a straight contest with the ruling Congress’ Daryl William Ch. Momin, the 27-year-old grandson of Captain Williamson A. Sangma, the first Chief Minister of Meghalaya. The Congress, fresh from its victory in the 2013 Assembly elections, is eyeing the seat on the strength of its performance in the Garo Hills. The party won 13 of the 24 Assembly seats in the region. This was up from the seven it won in 2008 when the NCP led by Sangma won 15 seats in the 60-member Assembly, 13 of them in the Garo Hills.

In Shillong, the only other Lok Sabha seat in the State, the Congress, whose candidate is the sitting MP Vincent H. Pala, appears to have the advantage in the absence of any alliance of regional parties against it. The Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP), the United Democratic Party (UDP), and the Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement (KHNAM) had come together as the All Regional Parties Alliance (ARPA) and formed a non-Congress Executive Committee (EC) to rule the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC), elections to which were held recently. However, the APRA failed to put up a common candidate in Shillong, with the UDP fielding its working president Paul Lyngdoh and the HSPDP and the KHNAM backing an independent, Rev. P.B.M. Basaiawmoit.

In Tripura, the CPI(M)-led ruling Left Front is confident of retaining both the Lok Sabha seats (see separate story).

Arunachal Pradesh will have simultaneous elections for the two Lok Sabha seats and 60 Assembly seats on April 9. The tenure of the Assembly was to end on November 4, but with the Governor, on March 6, accepting the recommendation of the State Cabinet to dissolve the Assembly and advance the elections, the Election Commission decided to hold it along with the Lok Sabha elections. The move by the Nabam Tuki government appeared to be aimed at ensuring that the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections did not have a bearing on the Assembly elections.

The Arunachal East Lok Sabha seat is poised for a three-cornered fight between sitting MP and Union Minister of State for Minority Affairs Ninong Erring of the ruling Congress, former MP Tapir Gao of the BJP and Wangman Lowangcha of the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA), which won four of the 60 Assembly seats in the 2009 Assembly elections. In the Arunachal West seat it is a multi-cornered contest. Those who have filed their nominations are the sitting MP Takam Sanjoy of the Congress; Kiren Rijiju, a former MP of the BJP; Jalley Sonam of the PPA; Habung Payeng of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP); Gumjum Haider, former president of North East Students’ Organisation (NESO), as the Trinamool Congress candidate; Gicho Kabak of the NCP; and Taba Taku of the Lok Bharati Party.

The return of Gegong Apang, a former Chief Minister and a Congress stalwart, to the BJP has come as a force multiplier for the party. Apang led the first BJP government in Arunachal Pradesh and in the region for a year before defecting to the Congress ahead of the 2004 Assembly elections. However, with Congress candidates winning unopposed in seven Assembly seats, it is clear that the opposition parties were caught napping by the advancement of the Assembly elections.

In Manipur, the Congress has renominated its two sitting MPs. The BJP is contesting both seats and is backed by the Manipur People’s Party (MPP). However, neither the BJP nor the MPP could win any seat in the Assembly elections in 2012. In Inner Manipur constituency, the sitting Congress MP, Thokchom Meinya, is locked in a multi-cornered contest with the candidate of the BJP, the CPI and the Trinamool Congress. Of the seven seats that the Trinamool Congress won in the last Assembly elections, six are part of the Inner Manipur Lok Sabha constituency. The CPI’s M. Nara came second in the 2009 elections. The CPI drew a blank in the 2012 Assembly elections. The Congress expects its candidate to win this time too because of the division of the non-Congress votes.

In the Outer Manipur constituency, the Congress’ Thangso Baite faces a stiff challenge from the Naga People’s Front (NPF), the Trinamool Congress and the BJP. The constituency has 20 Assembly seats in the hills and eight in the valley. In 2012, the Congress won 14 Assembly seats in the hills and seven in the valley. The NPF, the ruling party of Nagaland, won four Assembly seats.

In Nagaland, Chief Minister Neiphu Rio, who has been heading a regional party government for the past 11 years, is the consensus candidate of the ruling Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) led by the NPF for the lone Lok Sabha seat. The Congress has fielded former Minister K.V. Pusa. Neiphu Rio’s bid to enter national politics has signalled a likely change of guard in the State, where the dominant issue is the ongoing peace talks between the insurgent National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) and the Government of India. Rio is also the convener of the North East Regional Political Front (NERPF) formed by 10 regional parties in October 2013 in Guwahati. The BJP, an ally in the NPF-led DAN, won seven seats in the 60-member Assembly in 2003, but its number fell to two in 2008 and to one in 2013.

For the lone Lok Sabha seat in Mizoram a triangular fight is on the cards between the sitting Congress MP C.L. Ruala, Robert Romawia Royte of the United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Mizo National Front (MNF), and M. Lalmanzuala of the AAP. The Congress is banking on its flagship New Land Use Policy (NLUP) to retain the seat. It helped Chief Minister Lalthanhawla steer his party to a landslide victory in the November 2013 Assembly elections: the Congress won 34 seats in the 40-member Assembly. The opposition Mizo National Front (MNF) won five seats and its ally, the Mizoram People’s Conference (MPC), won one seat.

The core objectives of the NLUP are to wean farmers away from jhum (slash-and-burn cultivation) practices and assist them to find employment in economic ventures that create productive assets in each family, to keep 60 per cent of Mizoram’s total land area under rainforests, and to improve the income of both rural and urban poor through sustainable farming, micro-enterprises and small and cottage industries.

It will be a challenging task for the UDF and the AAP to reach out to all the beneficiaries of the programme and promise them something more attractive.

The Congress appears to be in an advantageous position in the absence of a formidable opposition in the northeastern States where it is in power.

By SUSHANTA TALUKDAR

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