Sinlung /
20 February 2013

The Northeasts of India

By Rajesh Dev

As Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya go to the polls, public discussion continues to flatten the region's internal diversity

Even as state politics has come to occupy centrestage, one fails to explain the lack of national concern in the elections currently underway in Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland. These states continue to remain peripheral to the Indian political imagination. Customarily entrapped as a uniform aggregate, the Northeast is framed as a cultural and spatial aberrant, not just to the civilisational oneness of India, but as a peer in its collective tryst with democracy.

Typically treated as a rebellious zone where anti-India or/and anti-Centre rhetoric is a reality, this region is framed as expressing a sense of collective unease with the idea of India. It shares what scholars of ethnic politics term as a "provisional form of togetherness". There is thus the projection of the region as an embittered and insurgent space where the trappings of democratic rule are overlaid upon an imposed order. Electoral processes and institutionalised politics are perceived as conduits for nationalising an extra-national fringe.

This flattens not just the internal diversity of the constituting states and the strands of their discrete politics, but fails to acknowledge the evolving, if tepid, story of institutional development in the region. Such frames underrate the democratic implications of the institutional reconstitution of the political space.

The innovative, occasionally messy, institutional treatment of collective claims has failed to receive even-handed recognition in evaluations of the political experiences of the Northeast. Any fair assessment of democratic governance there must be read in the context of regional generalities squared with state specificities. If all the states share the routine ills of electoral politics, each represents an institutionally specific transformative path.

Electoral politics in Nagaland has been historically shaped by the Naga national question. A feature of electoral politics there has been the relationship between the legal and ideological forces representing the Naga people. Since 1969, the role of ideological-underground forces in institutional politics became an accepted norm. If regional parties like the Naga People's Front have willingly displayed their nationalist aspirations and sympathy for the ideological representatives, national parties like the Congress shared a distant cordiality with them.This mutual legitimation has, in recent years, assisted in moderating Naga claims and led to negotiations for a political settlement. Even as electoral politics is restrained by a violent social grid that has limited the capacity of the electorate, competitive politics has assisted in formalising a nascent institutional political culture.

The maturing of a democratic political process is evident from the fact that today, the electoral agenda in Nagaland is no longer dominated by competitive rhetoric over the Naga national question. Elections are, therefore, no longer seen as a referendum on the peace process. It is now shaped by questions of development and governance.

Claims of neglect in the remote districts of Mon, Tuensang, Khipre and Longleng influence political discourse and strategy. And with 20 representatives from these districts, it will be interesting to see how this determines electoral outcomes. This is a transformative shift for a people who boycotted the first general elections of 1952.

Even if it is described by the locals as a season of abundance where money, muscle and madhu manipulates preference formation and expression of choices, elections have acquired a sanctity that legitimises a structure of democratic governance. Especially in these elections, the electorate seems to have genuine expectations from democratic politics. This is evident in popular discourse and the political agenda of leading political parties like the NPF (and its coalition partner, the BJP) and the Congress.

Tripura is what scholars describe as the "two-plus" competitive format, where the two main political formations — in this case the Congress and the Left front (CPM, CPI and Forward Bloc) — have to align with a third formation. Political competition in the state has often been between the CPM-led Left front and the Congress, which had provisional alignments with tribal regional parties, being organisationally weak in the tribal belts. The communists retain significant support in rural areas and have been able to regain support of tribes they had lost during the 1990s. The crushing of the tribal insurgency is supported by a governance model that emphasises development, improvement in the quality of life and grassroots democracy. Sub-state-level institutions like panchayats and autonomous councils consolidate the political dominance of the Left parties. The Left has been aided by factionalism and organisational disorder in the Congress. The Left should see no dislocation in its political dominance this election.

In Meghalaya, the politics of alliances and provisional coalitions continue to undermine the value of an ideologically consistent competitive structure. Fractured verdicts, unstable coalitions and political instability have been a permanent feature of democratic politics there. Though regional parties have had a dominating influence in state politics, they have failed to shape the political agenda due to incessant splits. The Congress has thus been able to expand into regional spaces through induced defections and mergers with regional parties. Electoral outcomes are influenced by tribal loyalties, personal charisma, denominational affiliations and insider-outsider images.

Incestuous political competition between allies and coalition partners introduces cynicism in the electorate and emasculates democratic engagement, curtailing political competition. In such conditions, political choice is determined by strategic political aims and forms of patronage linkages, and not by party loyalty or policy choices. In these elections, the Congress is engaged in a bitter contest with its regional ally, the United Democratic Party, and an opposition led by Purno Sangma and his newly formed National People's Party. The UDP, despite being an equal partner in the government, accuses the Congress of having spawned corrupt practices. An added element is the insurgent factor in Garo hills.

The varied political experiences of the individual states of the region suggest the lack of a fixed regional culture normally evoked by the governing narratives on the region. States in the Northeast can no longer be considered political exiles to the broader national democratic experiment.

The writer is assistant professor of political science, Delhi University

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