Tragedy is not the discomfort of physical distance, but the ‘psychological detachment’ that both ‘mainstream’ media and politicians have developed towards the region
If popular television journalist Rajdeep Sardesai is to be believed, “it is the tyranny of distance” that has become an excuse for mainstream media's insipid attitude towards the Northeast.
Guwahati in Assam, the gateway to the picturesque region, is at least 1,932 km by road from Delhi. By train, it takes anywhere between 34 hours and 42 hours. And then there is additional travel to other states of the region. For instance, people from Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh have to travel at least 12 hours by road to reach the airport or railway station in Guwahati. Manipur's capital Imphal and Mizoram's Aizawl are even farther away.
Of course, the journey to Delhi is not an easy one to embark on. Not even for those who can afford to fly. Nonetheless, every year thousands of students and job seekers leave their homes to fulfill their dreams in big cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune and Chennai. Some dreams come true, most don’t.
The tragedy is not the discomfort of the physical distance, but the “psychological detachment” that both the “mainstream” media and politicians have developed towards the Northeast. For long, Delhi has conveniently followed the policy of “silent treatment” towards the region, its people and their aspirations. Be it the annual floods, or militant attacks, or the recent deaths of nearly 155 people in the hooch tragedy in Assam, people from the region and their problems hardly make headlines in national media.
It's only when festering problems implode into major crises that Delhi rushes with funds to buy the region's silence. But then, most of the times, the financial aid gets lost in the quagmire of corruption -- the fruits of which are shared by the regional satraps and their bosses in Delhi. Nobody cares what is happening to the people in the region or why is it happening, unless there is an election.
The announcement of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, spread out in seven phases— beginning from April 11 to May 19 — has come in the backdrop of massive protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and the Permanent Resident Certificate (PRC) issue in Arunachal Pradesh in the recent past.
The eight states — Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura — share 25 Lok Sabha seats among themselves. Besides, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh will also vote for Assembly polls on April 11.
The Northeast is definitely not an Uttar Pradesh with 80 Lok Sabha seats that almost always seals the fate of the winning party or the coalition at the Centre. But after coming to power at the Centre, the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took fancy to the region, solely to make it Congress-mukt under the leadership of PM Modi.
The BJP’s clarion call to “free” Northeast from the Congress, has succeeded to a great extent in the past five years. One state after another, the Congress lost its grip over the region — starting from the defeat during the 2016 Assam Assembly polls -- as the BJP stitched up rainbow alliances with regional parties to form governments in these states. Today, the BJP and its alliance partners rule almost the entire region. The saffron party’s winning streak began during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when it won eight seats (seven in Assam and one in Arunachal Pradesh) on its own. Together with its allies, it had bagged 11 seats. The Congress had to settle with just eight seats in a region once considered its bastion.
The latest defeat the Congress had to endure was during the Mizoram Assembly polls held in December last year. The then-ruling party lost elections to the Mizo National Front (MNF), which is a part of the Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA), a BJP-floated platform of non-Congress parties. But all these alliances too are facing trouble after the BJP-led central government passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Lok Sabha. The Bill seeks to grant nationality to non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan after six years of residence in India. While pushing the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill, the BJP's main contention has been giving citizenship to minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh on the grounds of religious persecution. The party claims that while Muslim Bangladeshis enter India because of economic reasons, Hindus flee the neighbouring country because of religious persecution.
Even though the Bill was not tabled in the Rajya Sabha, mainly due to widespread protests across the Northeast and opposition from the Congress. While regional parties like the AGP in Assam and Meghalaya’s United Democratic Party left the NEDA in the wake of the massive protests against the Citizenship Bill, the NEDA is still very much intact. Regional powers like Meghalaya’s National People’s Party did express their opposition to the Bill, but still hasn't withdrawn support from the BJP. To add more confusion, the Asom Gana Parishad has now decided to resume its alliance with the BJP in Assam. However, not all members of the AGP are happy with the patch up. Until a few weeks back, the AGP was maintaining that it has the ability to fight the elections alone. It had even declared a list of probable candidates in 13 of the state’s 14 Parliamentary seats.
Then what made the AGP change its mind suddenly?
It is now believed that the AGP's resistance against the Bill was mainly a last-ditch effort by the regional party to stay electorally relevant in the state. The once-powerful regional outfit, which was born out of a strong anti-immigrant agitation in the 1980s, failed to cash in on the anti-BJP sentiments in the aftermath of the protests against Citizenship Bill.
Suddenly, it seems leaders from the region have absolutely no idea about want people really want or need. How would such leaders lead the people of the region. Is it not time the Northeast need strong regional parties which can represent it nationally?
In the absence of any strong and genuine voice in the region, can one really blame only those sitting in Delhi for not understanding enough? The answer lies with the voters and the choices they make while electing their representatives. This elections, Assam and the rest of the Northeast must vote for representatives who can truly take their voice to Parliament. Voters must not fall for fake promises and mere posturings by parties.
(Sunaina Upadhyaya is a senior journalist from Assam based in New Delhi. Views expressed are her own)