OPINION | Assembly Elections 2018: Change only a buzzword

OPINION | Assembly Elections 2018: Change only a buzzword

By Patricia Mukhim

Every political party contesting the assembly election to the three states of Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya is speaking about change. Interestingly, even the ruling Congress in Meghalaya, the NPF-BJP combine in Nagaland and the CPI (M) in Tripura are talking of ‘change’ as if that is as easy as changing underwear. Those who look for change should read Ken Blanchard’s book, “Who’s afraid of change?” This book shows how individuals working in the best of organisations resist change until ultimately it takes someone with great moral courage to bite the bullet and bring in the needed attitudinal and institutional transformation. But that takes a lot of energy and time.  Politics is finally about government formation by one group that gets the maximum number of seats in a state or country, but those who are elected often find themselves challenged by the might of a bureaucracy that has developed deep roots in the system and who are the last people to want any change especially the kind of change that will disrupt their comfort zones.

The other funny part about change is that during elections it is the electorate that wants change. If you ask the large majority of them what they want to see changing, most of them would not have a clue as to what is the change they envisage would make a difference to governance and by extension, to their lives. Everyone is just repeating the rhetoric about change and politicians are happy about it. So Neiphiu Rio the Member of Parliament who vacated his CM’s seat some moons ago to contest the Lok Sabha election has changed parties. He has divorced the Nagaland People’s Front (NPF) and joined the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) to contest the upcoming elections.  There are speculations that the NPF will see more attrition in the days to come, leaving the octogenarian Shurhozelie grappling with how to handle the crisis, yet unwilling to make way for younger leaders.

In Meghalaya, at least seven senior legislators and former ministers from the Congress –led Meghalaya United Alliance (MUA) have resigned their assembly seats to join the Nationalist People’s Party (NPP) founded by former Speaker PA Sangma and currently led by his son Conrad Sangma.  Two other former MLAs have joined the BJP. In Tripura, several former Congressmen and Trinamool Congress members have joined the   BJP.  So there is a change of political uniforms even if the faces remain the same old, wily and opportunistic ones. But that’s politics for you and it’s not even unexpected. It is the electorate that is looking for some amorphous change without defining in clear terms what they want to see changing in governance and policy making.

The BJP-led, NDA government at the Centre changed a lot of things after it came to power. It dismantled the redundant Planning Commission and replaced it with NITI Ayog which is supposed to give states more powers to define their own development paradigms instead of being dictated by a Planning Commission sitting in Delhi as to what schemes are good for the states. In a sense the NITI Ayog is meant to facilitate a more nuanced development which suits each state best since India is such a huge and diverse country.  The Modi regime did away with the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and has instead formed cohorts with specialisation in different areas of security to advise the government. Then came Demonetisation –  a very bold reform if there was one. We can be critical about it but the fact remains that Modi had the political courage to push it through. Next came the Goods and Services Tax (GST) which Rahul Gandhi terms the Gabbar Singh Tax – a taxation reform that the Congress-led UPA Government never had the stamina to push through and which the BJP opposed while in the Opposition.  The NDA Government has been brutally criticised by many but a good number also admit in private that except for the brash fringe that continually tarnishes the face of the BJP by unleashing its deep saffron agenda and killing and murdering those carrying beef or eating it, this government has steered a course that few before it had the courage to.  But this is not to say that the BJP per se embraces change whole-heartedly.  In state after state the BJP has admitted MLAs whose names are tarnished by large scale corruption. The case of Himanta Biswa Sarma from Assam is one. In Meghalaya too the new legislators who have joined the BJP are not exactly political saints. So too in Nagaland! In fact, all those with a history of sleaze are now joining the BJP because they believe it will willy-nilly form the government with quickly conjured allies after the elections and their sins of omission and commission will be forgotten!

In Tripura, the BJP led by its state-in-charge and RSS pracharak, Sunil Deodhar, has been working relentlessly to turn the tide against the ruling Left Front government led by Manik Sarkar. This man has steered clear of corruption and is believed to have provided good governance and to bring to an end the era of insurgency/militancy in Tripura, so much so that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act has been revoked in that state. Few chief ministers have the courage of conviction of Sarkar. In fact many state chief ministers including those of Manipur, Nagaland and Assam while publicly denouncing AFSPA would privately tell the Union Home Ministry that the Act should stay because they are unable to handle the underground outfits without the para-military/army. Such are the treacherous paths that politicians tread. However, even Manik Sarkar has failed to reinvent himself. Having won elections for five consecutive terms (20 years), the one thing he has perhaps failed to do is to give the tribals of Tripura their due recognition and to involve them in governance and decision-making more actively. Sarkar has not been able to remove the tag of being a Bengali who has not made the tribals feel they are the indigenous settlers of the state. The Left Front government’s repeated attempts to demean and demolish the contributions made by the Maharajahs of Tripura, who the indigenous tribals still treat with great respect; the attempts to lay indecent claims on  properties that belonged to the erstwhile maharajahs – a socialist agenda being pushed to the hilt – has not endeared Manik Sarkar to the tribes.

There is more to life in the tribal NorthEast than just development. People place much premium on their distinctive cultures and life worlds which could not be wiped away at the stroke of the pen after Indira Gandhi ended the era of rajas and maharajahs by abolishing the Privy Purses in 1971. So while a single amendment to the Constitution of India has made the erstwhile royalty poorer, it has not been able to abolish the respect that people have for their rulers. That a Communist Government has sought to demolish every vestige of that royalty, benevolent though it has been, is an attempt to destruct the very culture of a people. Social change is a slow process and should come gradually from within the society. The Left Front government has been seen to be vengeful and to systematically strike at the root of the tribal culture.

Now that the BJP has struck an alliance with the Indigenous Peoples’ Front of Tripura (IPFT) it remains to be seen if the saffron party will be able to create history and make Sitaram Yechury take back his words – “Tripura will be the BJP’s Waterloo.”

At this point there is a lot of political jugglery in all  three states and even an astute psephologist would find it hard to predict the results that would will be out on March 3, 2018. Lets not forget that since money power is supreme, he who has the money has the votes. Period.

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