Does the Northeast Have a Northeast Leader?

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

One of most admirable innovations of the newly sworn in BJP government led by Narendra Modi is the manner in which the charismatic though controversial Prime Minister, networked his various ministries, binding one to the other in an “organic” way, as has been described. In the inner circle of power wielders, he appointed politicians of known calibers as cabinet ministers. In the second circle, are the ministers of state, but most of those given independent charges of government departments are also given charge of being junior ministers under a cabinet ministers. Thus an experienced hand is sought to guide a less experienced one but also the experienced hand is also put on the alert that a junior colleague in the same department may outperform him or her.

Although this has not been demonstrated yet, there are also speculations that the new government plans to have a separate minister of cabinet rank to ensure smooth coordination between the various related ministries.

Whatever the criticisms of Modi, so far his government does seem to be fired by a sense of purpose, and if we may add, mission. It remains to be seen if the metaphor of the shadow which Eliot raised to almost the status of a proverb, begins to fall between the plans and their execution. On a cautionary note again, the much admired sense of mission this government exudes with so far, history has proven, can warp into an ultra-nationalistic monster, in total contravention of the liberal understanding of democracy and the welfare state, but nonetheless still coming under the guise of democracy. One does hope these fears prove unfounded, and the new government delivers not a Rightist and ultra-nationalistic agenda but its promise of all round growth and development that the country is starved for at this moment.

Amidst all the extremely well orchestrated and professionally disseminated propagandas which have virtually deluged the Indian media in the current times, it is difficult to figure out the veracity of news and analyses of such a complex subject as determining the political will of a billion and more people. As a matter of fact, the deluge of data and their interpretations by so called dispassionate experts have only accentuated the confusion in the minds of the general consumers of these information. As for instance, on the question of whether the popular verdict to usher in a BJP government with Modi at its helm was a result of a fragmented and polarized electorate or whether instead Modi unified existing divisions in the society, there has been no convincing answers.

Many think Modi paved the way for the electorate to sweep aside differences of caste, creed and colour, all of them finding a common denominator in their shared interest of a promise for a better future for themselves that would result from a growth in the macro economics of the country, a promise for which the media by and large have portrayed Modi as the only capable deliverer, hyping up the example of Gujarat’s fabled growth under Modi as chief ministership. There have been many credible voices against this claim, including by economist John Dreze, an associate of Amartya Sen, and somebody who has devoted his career to understanding the phenomenon of poverty in India. But the “Modi Tsunami”, or “TsuNamo” as again the media sensationally referred to, swept all these voices of dissent aside.

There are others who think election 2014 has actually fragmented and polarized the Indian society even more critically. They explain this is why a party which garnered only 31 per cent of the votes polled could win a clear majority in the Parliament. One of the indications of this divide, especially of the marginalization of the significant other population group of India – that of the Muslim – they say is that all of the meager seven Muslim candidates set up by the BJP all over India, which including the Congress turned BJP, veteran journalist and political chameleon M.J. Akbar, lost. In this regard, it is heartening that the Modi cabinet has a Muslim representative in the former chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, Najma Heptullah.

Incidentally, the Northeast also has two in the so far 45-strong ministry.

Surprisingly, or should one instead say not surprisingly, the ministry which functions as the nodal agency for all development works in the Northeast, DoNER, has gone to a former chief of the Indian Army. Whether this is for the good or the bad, it would be too early to comment, for indeed, there has never been any guarantee somebody from the Northeast knows the Northeast better in a holistic way. As an Army man who has served in the Northeast, one can almost vouch, at least as far as physical geography and demography spread is concerned, the general would have a better knowledge of the place than many Northeasterner. Whether only this level of knowledge is enough to be a good captain of the places politics, is the million rupees question which will begin to be answered in the next few years.

One thing is certain. The fragmented nature of politics in the Northeast being what it is, the place has seldom thrown up anybody who can qualify to be called a leader of the Northeast. From the pre-partition days, the name of Gopinath Bardoloi is often cited as one who has earned this stature, but though there can be no doubt he was a great leader of Assam fighting for the cause of the Assamese, there can also be no gainsaying that Assam is hardly the Northeast. He saved Assam from the campaign of the Muslim League and its local leader then, Md. Saadulla, also a former chief minister of the state, to have Assam included in Pakistan, but Bardoloi’s politics, premised fundamentally on Assamese nationalism as it was, in the long run resulted in the bifurcation of Assam. The Bengalis of Assam’sBarak Valley too are less than happy with his politics which resulted in Sylhet being bartered away to Pakistan.

In the current times, former chief minister of Nagaland and now an MP from the state, Neiphiu Rio, is mentioned in certain circle as one who has emerged as a leader of the Northeast, deserving to be given charge of the region. Would this claim be endorsed by all of the Northeast by and large? Unlikely. For while Rio is a charismatic leader of Nagaland state, and perhaps of the other Nagas outside of the state too, he is hardly likely to know, much less be interested in the nuances of the politics, aspirations, yearnings, insecurities etc, of the rest of the Northeast. The sectarian nature of his politics was evident in the manner the unsuccessful campaign of his party, the Naga People’s Front, NPF, to garner the Manipur Outer Parliamentary was conducted. In the aftermath of the election loss, he even charged the Nagas of betraying the Nagas in Manipur, revealing his peculiar political vision where Nagas are expected to vote only for the Nagas. In fact, this is the brand of democracy everybody and every other party should avoid to the extent possible.

As a matter of fact, the man Rio accused of sabotaging the Naga vote solidarity, Prof. Gangmumei Kamei, is one person who could have fitted the bill of being a Northeast leader. As a brilliant academician and a respected public intellectual, he is acceptable to not just to the rest of the Northeast, but much beyond. His agenda is informed not by sectarian political outlooks and therefore can see beyond narrow walls of ethnicity and region.

Former Lok Sabha speaker and former chief minister of Meghalaya, Purno A. Sangma, is another. However controversial his party politics may have been in the past, his political commitments is marked by the kind of catholicity of outlook which can make him acceptable to the most of the Northeast. I have distinguished here “party politics” and “political commitment”. He is someone who has been much visible to all the states of the Northeast, having participated in, therefore understands the local campaigns in most of these states.

Though low profile, the universal ideology of his party would have probably made the genial and affable Dr. M Nara of the CPI, an acceptable face too beyond his state.

Very surprisingly, though large and therefore carrying the most clout, Assam has not thrown up leaders who have been able to be Northeast leaders. The state has seen many ministers in the Union cabinet, and even a President of the Union. All of them were very accomplished men no doubt, but none have been able to find a resonance in the Northeast states except in Assam. Sadly, it seems, Assam is too preoccupied with itself. In the intellectual, media and arts circles, there are many Assamese who think Northeast but for some reason or the other, very few politicians are inclined similarly.

This list of possible Northeast leaders is far from exhaustive, but the point one is making is, there are very few leaders in the Northeast who have risen above the confines of their individual states. This probably is another reason, though not the only one, or for that matter the most important one, for this tendency to have somebody away from the Northeast to be chosen as a leader of the Northeast. The marginalization of the Northeast in the consciousness of the Indian mainstream is the most often cited reason for this seeming discrimination, and while not disputing this explanation altogether, the need is also for Northeast leaders to stretch their political visions beyond the confines of their individual states and communities.

Returning to the Modi government’s innovations, though still not tested and proven in practice, the other proposal particularly relevant to Manipur is that of having a full-fledged cabinet ranked ministry to oversee the coordination of inter-related ministries.

Evidence of an abysmal lack of such a coordination and cooperation is stark everywhere. It is common sight, round the year, for instance for the PWD to black top roads and soon after the PHED department to come and dig up these roads to lay their domestic water supply pipelines. If it is not the PHED then it could also be the Telecom department committing the wasteful carnage to lay their underground cables. There probably is nobody in the towns of the state, in particular the capital Imphal, who has not wondered in dismayed amusement, how the government’s right hand does not know what its left hand is doing. It would be highly appreciated if the Manipur government too could come up with some innovative measures to minimize this chaos caused by non-coordination of its related departments.