The PM may have a lot on his plate but he can only ignore the development of this strategic region at his own peril
The India of today is not the one we knew 30 years ago. India then was enamoured by a ruling dynasty having just emerged out of the British yoke. Prior to that, India was a fiefdom of several rajahs and maharajahs. So, it did take time for people to realise that a ruling dynasty that is self-serving and only intermittently remembers those at the fringes of development, has had it days. They realise, perhaps, that one who has risen from the ranks better understands their plight and might, just might figure out what can bring them out of the morass of poverty and deprivation that they have lived with for decades.
Such people do not speak in television studious, inhibited as they are by language and their inability to rub shoulders with the well-heeled. Hence, it is my conjecture that the large majority of panelists who hold forth in these TV studious do not even know what the hoi-polloi think. They are cut off from much of the pain and suffering of people in the rural outback who continue to believe like the Gully Boy in the same movie believed that “Apna time aayega”.
In fact, we all wait for that time for things to get better. For large sections of Indians who know what poverty is, getting subsidies in their back accounts is in itself a huge jump. This single act of the Modi 1.0 government that took the reins of governance in 2014 has revolutionised an anti-poverty programme. The scope for corruption and babudom has been drastically reduced and large sections of the Indian population now know to operate a bank account. That’s one major step.
The others are of course the ability of Mr Modi himself to communicate directly to the masses vide his “Mann Ki Baat” programme through the All India Radio. Week after week, Modi was talking to the masses as if he was one of them. Although this was a one-way communication, it seemed to resonate with large sections of the Indian masses. Modi was seen and heard all the time. No wonder, everywhere he held election rallies, there were chants of ‘Modi, Modi, Modi’. Election 2019 was fought on the presidential mode.
It goes without saying that there are several reasons for why the BJP won this election with larger numbers and why the main opposition party, the Congress, lost the race. Firstly, the Congress had lost the plot a while ago. Rahul Gandhi, despite his good intentions, is not a grassroots leader. He may pretend to eat in a Dalit home one day but that’s not where his heart is. He represents a modern dynasty and his courtiers too are many of the hardcore dynasts, each one promoting their own children to take their place in politics.
Perhaps they see politics as the easiest way to power, pelf and the ability to make a quick buck without any accountability. The wealth rankings of most MPs/ministers tell us that politics is good business too. Narendra Modi defies that because, (a) he is a bachelor; (b) he is a full time karyakarta whose one self-professed goal is to serve the country and to raise its stature in the comity of nations. This, he pursues with single-minded devotion and Modi does not allow any distraction from this goal.
Modi believes that it is pointless dealing with adversarial media hence he ignores it. If there are others who care to promote what he does without as much as questioning his motives (Modi believes his motives of serving a larger purpose than the self should itself be beyond any reproach) then he would oblige then with an interview – ones which media house call “scripted.”
But despite the criticisms Modi is unfazed. He goes about his duties like a monk would do in a monastery. We may not like the man or agree with his ideologies; indeed many still recall with horror the Godhra massacre of 2002 when Modi presided over Gujarat as its CM and ‘allowed’ those killings to just happen, but Modi has moved on and so too many of those who believe in him and his cherished slogan, “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas and now one step further, Sab ka Vishwas.”
It is difficult to configure Modi and to understand the algorithm that makes him tick. There are those who have a visceral hatred for the man while others seem to admire him considerably. And this happens across the class divide. Large sections of the intelligentsia are Modi fans even while another category that are labeled as the Lutyens’ Delhi class continue to revile him and distrust his motives. Perhaps, with Modi into his second term, the stamina for discernment for those who see everything wrong with the BJP and its ideology is exhausted; at least for now. Modi has defied all calculations much to the chagrin of his detractors.
It is in this very complex scenario that one will try to analyse what’s in store for India’s Northeast in Modi’s second tenure. The BJP managed to secure 13 of the 25 seats and its partners managed five. In all, the NDA has 18 seats from the eight states of the region. The Congress on the other hand managed just five seats (four from Assam and one from Meghalaya). The party is virtually on its last legs in the Northeast.
The hue and cry about the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that had occupied our mind space (at least that of the thinking class) seemed to have dissipated by the time the elections came. Amit Shah had unabashedly announced at a public meeting in Assam that if the NDA returns, then CAB would become a reality. But people still voted for the NDA.
The single seat that went to the Congress in Meghalaya was more to do with the candidate Vincent Pala’s antecedents and his batting for the coal mine lobby which is keen to see the ban on coal mining lifted. Vincent Pala himself owns several coal mines.
In Arunachal Pradesh, much was done to malign the image of Tapir Gao the BJP MP candidate from Arunachal East, but he still managed to win over his rival Wanglat Lowangcha. For Kiren Rijiju, winning was never in doubt. Rijiju was minister of state for home in the Modi 1.0 government. He has done quite creditably in that capacity and this time is rewarded with the ministry for sports and youth affairs over which he will not hold independent charge. This is one ministry which can become the game changer for the Northeast.
Meghalaya will be hosting the National Games in 2022 and infrastructure creation and facilities for sportspersons will be a major challenge. Rijiju will have to ensure that the Games are held without a glitch. That will add to his stature. Rameshwar Teli, the second man from the region to be sworn in to the Modi government, is the minister of state for food processing industries. Food processing is a major activity that needs to be boosted since we hardly have food processing units that are worth talking about. Much of the food processing still happens at the level of households. This needs to be upscaled.
States like Meghalaya, which grow curcumin with the highest curcumin content in the world at 7.9 %, is still not branded and packaged appropriately to reach the world market. The entire region grows spices, and fruits such as pineapples, oranges and bananas with a very short shelf life all need to be processed. It is ironic that litchis from India are processed in Bangladesh and are sent back to our markets. Why should this happen at all? This is because there has been very little or no focus on food processing in this region of exotics fruits and vegetables.
The next important agenda is to turn Modi’s slogan – Act East Policy into a reality. We have had seminars and lectures galore by people with connection to the ministry of the development of the north east (DoNER) and the ministry of external affairs (MEA). Much has been outlined on this important area. The time has come to make visible progress by way of better connectivity with the countries of South East Asia. It is time to bolster our relations with Bangladesh and ensure that India gets access to the Chittagong port via some reciprocal policy.
The Northeastern states, barring Assam, are landlocked and have been so after the Partition. That lock must now be opened so that trade and commerce can also happen vide the Bangladesh corridor for states that do not share borders with Myanmar or Thailand. Our Land Customs Stations (LCS) at Tripura, Meghalaya, Manipur and Sikkim need to be augmented to allow more goods to pass through. At the moment these are used more for smuggling in Chinese products much to the disadvantage of India’s trade figures.
One very worrying factor is the location of the DoNER ministry in Delhi. This ministry was created during the Vajpayee era mainly to bridge the gap between the Northeast and New Delhi. The North Eastern Council was supposed to be the headquarters for DoNER to handle essential infrastructure projects and for monitoring their progress. Over the years, an unhealthy tug of war has developed between NEC and DoNER. All meetings are held in Delhi and files are taken back and forth from Shillong to the national capital. This is not helping the region at all.
The distance and alienation have not been addressed as yet. The DoNER minister Dr Jitendra Singh has hardly visited the Northeast, busy as he is with his duties in the PMO. It would have been much more meaningful to give independent charge of this ministry to someone from the region who can also be held accountable and who is more accessible.
Mr Modi may have a lot on his plate but he can only ignore the development of this strategic region at his own peril.
(Patricia Mukhim is a social activist, writer, journalist and the editor of The Shillong Times. Recipient of various honours of national and international repute, she was also bestowed with the Padma Shri in 2000 by the government of India. She tweets at @meipat. Views expressed above are her own)