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Why the election in Arunachal Pradesh is important

Last updated on: October 09, 2009 20:30 IST

When the nation indulges with Chinese-made firecrackers in the upcoming festival of lights, the mountainous state of Arunachal Pradesh will be going for polls with a different Chinese effect that echoes that country's continuous claim on Arunachal Pradesh.

The October 13 poll, therefore, is not merely another democratic cycle for the exercise of suffrage, but will also deliver a strong message to China as Arunachal Pradesh, once again, actively participates in electing 60 members to its assembly. For India as well as China the election is more than the installation of a democratically elected government in Arunachal Pradesh. However, the inevitable question will be: Will China shed its claim even after seeing the poll result?

Arunachal Pradesh, which became the 25th state of the Indian Union, was administered by the ministry of external affairs until 1965 and subsequently by the ministry of home affairs through the governor of Assam. Arunachal Pradesh shares a long international border with Bhutan (160 km) to the west, China to the north and north-east (1,080 km) and Myanmar to the east (440 km). It also shares common boundaries with Nagaland and Assam.

Despite having only 750,575 voters, as per the final rolls, the election is a costly affair in the mountain state. The state will have only 2,061 polling stations. Despite that, poor infrastructure and lack of connectivity multiply the cost of the election.

However, it will remain inevitable for the people of Arunachal to vote for development and stability in the face of Chinese goods flooding the state, as well as the unending Chinese claim over it. It will also be inevitable on the part of the national political parties to focus on the two priorities keeping in mind the outside pressure gnawing beyond the audible vocal assertions. Again, despite the fringe location, the poll will be important because it is one of the few potent instruments to link the local ethos with the larger national interest.

The contesting parties

Electoral politics in Arunachal Pradesh is said to be synonymous with horse-trading and defections. Even though there are many political parties in the state, political leaders are far from finding their integrity firmly embedded to the ideology or manifestos. Instead of winning the people, the priority of the politician is more to be on the winning side. This was the reason that put the Congress in a difficult position; the problem of choosing a few good men from a crowded list of candidates. This also is one of the reasons that hinders real politics, representing the interest of the people, from taking the centrestage in Arunachal Pradesh. In spite of that, the state could be seeing a change from within itself, as the already awakened civil society which is tired of the unstable politician's character is seeking a change. The youth factor would also play a significant role in the upcoming election.

The Dorjee Khandu-led Congress party will be contesting all the 60 seats. The Congress will be fielding many of its heavyweights including former chief minister Gegong Apang. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has decided to go to the poll with 30 candidates. The party has also said it would support non-Congress candidates in constituencies that it is not contesting. The BJP had a setback when its former Lok Sabha member Kiren Rijiju defected to the Congress. The Nationalist Congress Party will also be fielding 40 candidates. The NCP won two seats in the 2004 poll. However, its legislators crossed over to the Congress. The Naga Peoples' Front had confirmed that it will contest 12 seats. The Trinamool Congress had also announced its first list of 26 candidates. Besides that, teh People's Party of Arunachal, Lok Bharati and the Janata Dal-United will also be contesting. Interestingly, the Trinamool Congress and the NPF will be in the poll fray for the first time.

The Naga People's Front's announcement that it will contest met with protests from various civil organisations. Leading the protests was the All Arunachal Pradesh Students' Union that sees the NPF's interests in terms of the larger design for a 'Greater Nagalim' that includes Tirap and Changlang. AAPSU president Takam Tatung asked: "If the NPF does not have any ulterior motive, then why is it not contesting elsewhere other than in the Tirap and Changlang districts?"  The AAPSU asked Governor J J Singh to invoke the provisions of article 371(H) to thwart the NPF bid and "prevent ethnic divisions". Arunachal Pradesh Congress Committee spokesperson Tako Dabi also said the government must ensure that anybody coming to Arunachal for election campaign must possess an Inner Line Permit. Despite the bedlam, the NPF remains unperturbed. Its secretary general Aja Kenye even said that his party is optimistic about winning most of the seats it is contesting.

China, India and the poll-bound state

The Chinese factor cannot be ruled out of the poll context for many reasons. One being Beijing's renewed claims to Arunachal's Tawang region. In March this year, China made a dogged attempt to block a development loan for India from the Manila-based Asian Development Bank on the pretext that part of the loan was meant for Arunachal Pradesh. However, the ADB granted a $60 million loan for a watershed protection project in Arunachal Pradesh. 

In the recent past, Beijing has even protested visits by Indian leaders, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pratibha Patil, to the state.

The forgotten issues

As the poll fever heats up, issues that were supposed to be burning at the heart of the manifestos of the contesting political parties were already put on the backburner. The Chakma question, once again, fails to fit into the domain of any political parties. Despite an Election Commission order that the Chakma refugees who were settled by the Government of India during 1964-69 'are constitutionally entitled to be registered in the electoral rolls' and a Supreme Court order dated January 9, 1996, directing the Government of India and the state government to settle the issue expeditiously and ensure that the life and personal liberty of each and every Chakma residing in the state is protected, the Chakmas have not been included in the electoral rolls till date. The issue of citizenship rights is not been taken up by any of the political parties.

Secondly, Arunachal Pradesh has been on a spree signing Memorandums of Agreement with hydro-power companies. Since 2006, the state government has signed MoAs for 103 hydro-power projects for a total of 30,000 MW.  Thirty-one of these MoAs/MoU were signed just five months before the Lok Sabha polls. The state plans to sign a total of 135 MoAs for 57,000 MW without taking into account the environment, social, cultural, political and demographic impact. There has been strong resistance from diverse civil society organisations against the 'MoU virus'. 

Despite the other gnawing issues like inflation, lack of infrastructure, backwardness, the stark urban-rural gap and the slow pace of development, the state does not seem to feel the need to stick these issues to the multiplying political parties. The pre-poll climate indicates that the Congress will not have a smooth sail in spite of it making bigger promises. The BJP and the NCP also fancy their chances. The Naga Peoples' Front also has its feet firm and big on the ground and may bag all the 12 seats it is contesting. Post-poll, Arunachal is unlikely to see single party-rule. Political parties have already started whispering about post-poll alliances. As the whisper gets louder, a coalition is more likely, which, again, will be determined by the power of money. 

Image: (from left) Congress President Sonia Gandhi with Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu and former CM Gegong Apang

David Buhril, a native of Manipur, is an award winning journalist working on diverse under-reported issues.

David Buhril