Debating India

VERDICT 2004

The incumbents’ victory

Sushanta TALUKDAR

Thursday 3 June 2004, by TALUKDAR*Sushanta

THE strong anti-incumbency wave that swept across the country seems not to have touched the seven northeastern States of Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Tripura and Mizoram. In all the States, most of the ruling party candidates won or retained their respective parties’ Lok Sabha seats. With the results of 23 of the 24 seats in the region declared, the Congress won 11, the Left parties two, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies seven and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) two.

in Guwahati

The Congress won nine seats in Assam and one each in Meghalaya and Manipur. The BJP won two each in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and its allies, the Nagaland People’s Front (NPF), the Mizo National Front (MNF) and the Nationalist Trinamul Congress (NTC), got a seat each. As expected, the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front won both the seats in Tripura with huge margins.

The election results have raised hopes among the Opposition parties of returning to power in the next round of Assembly elections and created apprehension among the ruling parties, barring the Left Front in Tripura. While the Congress is ruling Assam, Meghalaya and Manipur, the BJP is ruling Arunachal Pradesh and sharing power in Nagaland with the NPF. The BJP’s ally MNF is ruling Mizoram.

Although the Congress could retain almost the same number of seats it defended in Assam, winning nine of the 14 seats against 10 won in 1999, the results indicate that the party has reasons to worry about the Assembly elections scheduled for May 2006. First, this time round traditional Congress supporters such as the tea garden workers did not fully repose faith in the party. This was evident in the performance of Congress candidates in areas dominated by tea garden workers - the defeat of Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president Paban Singh Ghatowar in Dibrugarh, a constituency the party had never lost since the first Lok Sabha elections in 1952, and the low victory margin of Bijoy Krishna Handique in the Jorhat constituency.

Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi admitted that the party had failed to realise the erosion of its support base among the tea garden workers and that it had taken for granted its influence among this section of people. The erosion of support in several other Assembly seats dominated by tea garden workers was reflected in the result of the byelection to the Mariani Assembly constituency, which the Congress lost to the NTC. The byelection was necessitated by the death of Congress MLA and Minister Rupam Kurmi.

The party’s vote share declined in Assembly segments with substantial numbers of tea garden workers and represented by Ministers such as Sarat Barkatoki, Hemoprabha Saikia, Rameswar Dhanowar and Hem Prakash Narayan and Assembly Speaker Prithvi Majhi. Congress leaders attributed the fall to the failure of the State government to convince the managements of tea gardens to pay adequate bonus to the workers during the Puja festival in 2003. However, the Congress’ support base among the minorities remained intact as indicated by the party’s victory in the Muslim-dominated seats of Barpeta and Dhubri in lower Assam.

Second, the AGP, which drew a blank in the last two successive Lok Sabha elections, not only wrested two seats from the Congress but it came second in four seats, thereby showing signs of a resurgence of regionalism in the State. The AGP pulled off a surprise when its candidate Sarbananda Sonowal, a former president of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), won the Dibrugarh seat. On the other hand, the squabbles within the Congress helped the AGP wrest the Lakhimpur seat where its candidate Arun Sarma defeated the sitting Congress MP, Ranee Narah. While the AGP’s victory will help party president Brindaban Goswami to consolidate his position in the party, it dashed the hopes of Goswami’s arch-rival and former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta to stage a comeback. Mahanta’s supporters had planned to blame Goswami in the event of the party’s defeat in the Lok Sabha polls. Meanwhile, Mahanta’s wife Jayashri Goswami Mahanta suffered a humiliating defeat: she forfeited her security deposit in Dhubri where the Congress’ Anowar Hussain won. Jayashri Goswami Mahanta was expelled from the AGP for contesting against the party candidate.

The BJP, which banked heavily on the `Vajpayee factor’ and on the music maestro Bhupen Hazarika, failed to achieve anything substantial. The party retained the Nagaon seat where its former State president Rajen Gohain defeated his nearest rival, the Congress’ Bishnu Prasad, and wrested from the Congress the Mangaldai seat where its candidate Narayan Barkatoki, a former State president of the party, defeated the sitting MP Madhab Rajbangshi. The party suffered a major setback in the State with the defeat in Guwahati of Hazarika, who had replaced the sitting MP and Union Minister of State for Water Resources Bijoya Chakrabarty. While Chakrbarty won the seat in 1999 by a margin of 75,238 votes, Hazarika lost to Congress candidate Kirip Chaliha by 72,849 votes. The Congress attributed its defeat in Mangaldoi to the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) lending support to the BJP. As the ABSU did not put up a candidate in the constituency, the division of non-Congress votes was on a smaller scale and thus ensured the victory of the BJP. On the other hand, the ABSU-backed independent candidate Sansuma Khungur Bwismuthiary was credited with the highest victory margin in the State, 4,84,129 votes.

THE Left reasserted its supremacy in Tripura by retaining both the seats with huge margins. While the sitting CPI(M) MP, Khagen Das, defeated his nearest Congress rival Nirmalya Dasgupta by 3,84,636 votes in the Tripura West constituency, in the Tripura East constituency, dominated by tribal people, the sitting CPI(M) MP, Bajuban Riyan, defeated his nearest BJP rival Pulin Dewan by over three lakh votes.

The margins of victory of both the ruling party candidates, which were double that in the last elections, were a reflection of the Left’s increasing influence among the tribal people and the shrinking influence of insurgent outfits. They also indicated the decline of the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT) with which the BJP-NTC combine had struck an electoral alliance. Although BJP candidate Pulin Dewan overtook Congress candidate Jadu Mohan Tripura to claim the second position in Tripura East, Dewan trailed far behind the CPI(M) candidate in all the six Assembly segments represented by the INPT.

The Left Front described the sweeping victory as a positive mandate in favour of the development work initiated by the State government. Although the results in the State were a foregone conclusion, Chief Minister Manik Sarkar and other leaders of the Left Front had underlined the importance of mobilisation of more people in the struggle against communal forces and against the evils of insurgency.

In Nagaland, the ruling NPF, a constituent of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), wrested the only Lok Sabha seat from the Congress. Its candidate Wangyuh Konyak defeated Congress MP K. Asungba Sangtam by 4,05,000 votes. Despite the defeat, the Congress is expected to play an important role in deciding the fate of the ongoing peace process between the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah) and the Centre and the ceasefire with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang). Former Chief Minister S.C. Jamir said that the PCC would project "the real political issue" to the party high command and hinted at the induction of a political figure in the peace talks. PCC president Hokheto Sumi went on record immediately after the results were declared as saying that the peace process would continue in a more transparent way, though the party put the ball in the court of the NSCN(I-M).

IN Arunachal Pradesh, though the ruling BJP wrested both the Lok Sabha seats from the Congress, the former seemed to be more worried about holding on to the electoral gains until October when the popularity of the Gegong Apang-led government, the first of the BJP in the region, would be tested in the Assembly election. This explains why immediately after the results were announced, the BJP declared that all sitting MLAs would be re-nominated for the Assembly election. This was done in a bid to prevent the legislators from shifting loyalty to former Chief Minister Mukut Mithi whose government Apang toppled. The BJP’s Tapir Gao defeated the sitting Congress MP, Wangcha Rajkumar, by 42,639 votes in the Arunachal East constituency where 1,497 Chakma and Hajong refugees voted for the first time since they fled their ancestral land in Bangladesh and settled in the State in 1964. Although the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU) had given a poll boycott call to oppose the granting of voting rights to Chakma and Hajong refugees, it failed to affect the turnout.

The election results in Meghalaya were on expected lines. Both the sitting MPs, former Lok Sabha Speaker and NTC leader Purno Agitok Sangma and the Congress’ Paty Ripple Kyndiah, retained their seats. P.A. Sangma defeated State Public Works Department Minister Mukul Sangma in the Tura constituency. Sangma’s victory margin, however, declined to 75,269 votes from 1,13,579 votes in 1999. With the Congress set to assume power at the Centre, Sangma has been caught on the wrong foot. He had vowed to resign as an MP if Sonia Gandhi became the Prime Minister.

In Manipur, where the elections were held under the shadow of the gun, the ruling Congress’ candidate and State Higher Education Minister Thokchom Meinya won by 49,333 votes from the Inner Manipur seat. (Counting of votes for the only other constituency in the State, Outer Manipur (Reserved), has been postponed.) The sitting BJP MP and former Union Minister, Thounaojam Chaoba Singh, finished fourth. The BJP attributed the defeat to interference of militant outfits in the election process.

The underground Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) had warned that Chaoba would be killed and clamped a ban on electioneering by other party leaders and workers if Chaoba was not removed as the State BJP president. On the other hand, while the proscribed Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF) clamped a boycott on the ruling Congress, the underground United National Liberation Front (UNLF) called for a boycott of the election.

The ruling MNF in Mizoram won the lone Lok Sabha seat in the State when its candidate Vanlalzawma defeated Mizoram Secular Force (MSF) candidate Laltlungliana Khiangte by 23,185 votes. The ruling party also won the byelection to the Kolasib Assembly constituency.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Pic 2: RITU RAJ KONWAR ; P.A. Sangma of the Nationalist Trinamul Congress after his victory.

Pic 3: RITU RAJ KONWAR ; Bhupen Hazarika after his defeat in the Guwahati constituency.

in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 11, May 22 - Jun 04, 2004.

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