Will NEDA be able to put together the political will needed to resolve the long pending border issues between the states?
May 24 shall certainly be a day remembered in the political history of not only Assam but of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ambition to electorally conquer the Northeast.
Under an open sky, for the first time after 1985 – when the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) took over the reins of the state post the Assam Accord – the state’s BJP President Sarbananda Sonowal took oath as the chief minister, thus turning true his party’s decades-old ambition to grab power in Assam.
Modi in Assam
Not in recent history did the state’s people witness a prime minister attend their chief minister’s oath taking ceremony. On May 24, while more than one lakh people were present at the city’s Khanapara area, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was present at the ceremony flanked by a slew of BJP veterans and some religious leaders who support the party. Besides who’s who from its allies AGP and Bodo People’s Front (BPF), former Congress chief minister Tarun Gogoi was present as a “special invitee” of Sonowal.
However, the biggest takeaway of the day was not the political star-studded gala event and show of strength, or even the promises delivered by Modi but what followed it.
NEDA for improved coordination
Towards the evening, at the conference room of the Taj Vivanta in Guwahati, a close-door meeting took place between the chief strategist of the BJP’s recent poll policy – Himanta Biswa Sarma, Sonowal and the Chief Ministers of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland along with BJP president Amit Shah and its national general secretary Ram Madhav.
What sprung from the meeting was the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), a political group sewed up by the BJP, along with three regional parties. Later, speaking to the media, Ram Madhav said NEDA would be a partner of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the Centre and Sarma would be its convener.
Addressing the media, Sarma said, “We have formed NEDA to improve coordination among the NDA partners in the Northeast states and strengthen our base in the region. We will lay emphasis on good governance, speedy development in the states where NDA partners are in power.”
While Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) leader and state Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling looked on, Arunachal Chief Minister Kalikho Pul, the founder of People’s Party of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland People’s Front leader and Chief Minister T.R. Zeliang expressed confidence of “working together” with “big brother Assam”. Sonowal also spoke on the same lines as Sarma.
Congress mukt Bharat
Clearly, NEDA has been launched to extend the BJP’s national agenda of a “Congress mukt Bharat” in the Northeast. The initiative is crucial considering three of the remaining seven Congress ruled states in the country are in that region – Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram. While elections in Manipur are due in early 2017, the government in Mizoram and Meghalaya were formed in 2013.
The decision to ally with the three north-eastern regional parties may prove to be the master stroke for the BJP to unseat the Congress there. “I am glad that BJP has realised the importance of the regional parties. For instance, in a state like Nagaland, it will have to enter only through regional allies. It doesn’t have a base here. Also, Christianity has a strong base in Nagaland and lifestyle of people is also a bit different,” noted former Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphu Rio.
Speaking to The Wire from Dimapur, Rio, the lone member of parliament of the NEDA partner NPP, welcomed the move, saying, “People coming together is always good. So is the coming together of regional political parties. Though politically, it is a move to wipe out the Congress from the region, it can also be a platform for the states to sort out local issues between them.”
Rio, presently under suspension for “anti-party activities”, hinted at the five-decade-old border dispute between Assam and Nagaland which explodes every now and then, leading to violence and death of people living in the border villages.
It is not that the earlier chief ministers of the two states have not tried solving it politically. A series of meetings at various levels, including at the Centre took place over the decades. Rio himself had been a part of these deliberations.
In 2006, the Supreme Court, hearing a title suit filed by the AGP government in Assam in 1988 to delineate the constitutional boundary of each state, appointed mediator Sriram R. Panchu to help resolve the dispute. Panchu submitted a note to both the state governments and urged the chief ministers to bring about a quick resolution by following the note as a blueprint. Prior to that, the apex court also formed a three-member local commission headed by a retired SC judge to sort out the problem. The commission submitted its report to the SC but the issue has still not reached any solution – a reason why Assam recently expressed fear that the Modi government might “give away the state’s land” to Nagaland as per the Naga Accord considering its clauses have been kept secret by the Centre. Though the formal agreement between Assam and Nagaland doesn’t include the “disputed” areas, Nagaland has been demanding “restoration” of all Naga territories transferred out of the Naga Hills after the British annexed Assam in 1826.
On May 24 evening, responding to a question on the border issue, Sonowal said, “We will certainly discuss the Assam-Nagaland border issue and try and solve it. NEDA will be a platform to plan development for the Northeast.”
Yet another old border dispute that Sonowal will have to sort out for Assam is with Arunachal Pradesh, a state headed by another chief minister present in that evening meeting – Kalikho Pul. BJP’s central leadership recently helped Pul break away from the Congress and form a government in the state. The dispute between the states is also in the Supreme Court. The last time violence was reported from the border areas was in July 2015.
“Apart from the political will between the two states, the political will of the Centre is also necessary to sort out the border problem. Since the mandate of NEDA is a political one, aimed at expanding BJP’s reach in the Northeast, I would say, let’s wait and see how it pans out and whether this alliance can solve the local issues,” commented Jarpum Gamlin, the Editor of the Itanagar-based The Eastern Sentinel.
Assam has border dispute with Mizoram and Meghalaya also whose chief ministers are not part of the NEDA yet for obvious reasons. In 2011, the Meghalaya assembly passed a resolution seeking Centre’s help to form a ‘Boundary Commission’ to sort out its dispute with Assam. In March this year, Meghalaya took it up with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh too. Thankfully, the disagreement has not led to the kind of violence seen in the Naga-Assam border. Mizoram had also taken up the Assam border dispute with Rajnath Singh in 2014.
Apart from Assam, there are border issues between Tripura and Mizoram, and importantly between Nagaland and Manipur, which has often lead to economic blockade and violence. Many in Manipur fear that the Modi government will agree to “secretly give away” its land to the Nagas as part of the Naga Accord, provoking many street protests in Imphal already.
Congress MP from Assam, Gaurav Gogoi commenting on the developments said, “Though one tends to see the region as one but one northeastern state is very different from the other. So a uniform strategy by any party will never work there. Also, at times, the relation between the states is of collaborative nature, and at some other times, it is of competitive nature.”
Tough innings for Sarma
Only time will tell whether the NEDA will be able to put together enough political will to resolve these vexed issues or not. “As of now, what comes to the fore is that Sarma may have been made a minister in the Sonowal government but he will have to prove his worth again to his new party before he can fulfil his ultimate ambition of becoming Assam CM for which he primarily left the Congress. He will first have to deliver a difficult state like Manipur to BJP which is going to polls in about nine months’ time,” remarked a senior Guwahati-based editor, requesting anonymity.
“This is an internal matter of the party, so we should not comment on it but as a Congress member, I would say NEDA shows the political agenda of the BJP for the Northeast but it doesn’t speak of its development agenda for the region. I am pointing it out because in the last two years of the Modi government, the signal sent to Assam was not about supporting the state’s economic development, be it through its withdrawal of the special category status to it or through withdrawal of the Northeast Industrial and Investment Promotion Policy,” said Gogoi.