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The rise and decline of regional parties in the North East
Liberty Institute, India Saturday, December 14, 2013

Abhijit Deb
In an era of coalition politics, when the regional parties are gaining prominence in the political map of the country, surprisingly, in north eastern states, most of the regional parties which were the end product of long drawn movement or armed struggle are fast fading into oblivion.

In an era of coalition politics, when the regional parties are gaining prominence in the political map of the country, surprisingly, in north eastern states, most of the regional parties which were the end product of long drawn movement or armed struggle are fast fading into oblivion.

Out of the seven north eastern states only Naga Peoples Front, a regional party which is the lead partner in Democratic Alliance of Nagaland supported by BJP is ruling the state for consecutive third time, keeping in bay the national parties like Congress.

On the other hand the regional party like Mizo National Front (MNF) which was born out of long armed struggle espoused the cause of `sub-nationalism’ joined the mainstream politics after the Mizo accord was signed in 1986. However, the card of `Mizo Nationalism’ the sentiment that fuelled the secessionist movement against India in 1966 has failed to garner votes for the part in the just concluded assembly elections. The party which fought elections on alliance with local parties like Mizo Peoples Conference and Marland Democratic Party could manage to win only 5 seats in last two assembly elections.

The falling electoral fortune of MNF is an indication towards the trend that as the democratic process strengthened by passing of time the focus of the electorate seems to have shifted to basic issues of governance like development and accountability, and the leaders of these movements who acquired political power, were held accountable by voters, sooner or later.

Notably, loss of former chief minister Zoramthanga in assembly election, who is a rebel turned political leader gives credence to the above fact.

Riding on more or less on the same plank of aggressive regionalism, the harbinger of regional politics in the north east, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) which two decades back used to enjoy unparallel popularity, is not even a shadow of its former self..

AGP was the end product of historic Assam movement against migrants led by the influential student organisation All Assam Students Union (AASU).  The Agitation underlined the Assamese yearning for ‘self-identity’, and produced a new set of leaders and a new political party, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which was formed on October 14, 1985.

AGP leaders were drawn from two influential students’ bodies, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP). At the young age of 28, Prafulla Kumar , the student leader became the youngest chief minister of the state in the country. However, the personal aspiration rose over the party ideology and there was split in the party. Differences between two of its main leader late Brighu Phukan and Mahanta dent a serious blow to the party image at large.

On similar lines, United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the most prominent insurgent outfit in Assam raised a ‘revolutionary banner’ against the illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and the utter neglect of the people of Assam by the Union government, and sought a solution in creating a Swadhin Asom (Independent Assam)

While AGP and AASU led a political movement, ULFA on other hand was involved in the armed struggle which during last part of the nineties caught the imagination of average Assamese, however, with change in time and ULFA doing a somersault in its ideology the outfit lost people’s support.

On the other hand the support which AGP used to enjoy from AASU died down, as the two time government at the state were accused of huge corruption and training guns on people who once helped them.

Reportedly, the party had a tactic support of ULFA, but the insurgent organisations turned against the party when it started targeting its cadres.
“People had lot of expectations from AGP mainly in solving the foreigner’s issue. But, its leaders all middle and lower middle class and young couldn’t resist the temptation of power and lure of money. In doing so they completely ignored the illegal migrants issue riding on which they were voted to power,” said Anirban Roy, a senior journalist who has tracked the party in its initial days.

The political vacuum created by the decline of AGP is now being filled by the religious minority party All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF),  which has emerged as the principal opposition party in the state with 18 seats in assembly pushing AGP to a distant fourth in state politics after BJP.

Mainly in north east language and region has acquired the nature of ideology of all these parties. If we leave out the Hindi-speaking States, most others are unilingual States and that provided fertile soil for the emergence of regional parties. As language and region coalesce, regionalism took the form of linguistic nationalism. When they are further combined with religion, culture or ethnic identity it becomes a powerful force. However, this very fact of the party in changing socio-political scenario is working against it .

“Big regional parties like AGP have to be more accommodative in a complex state like Assam. Should be representative of  hopes and aspirations of all ethnic communities in multi cultural state. And this is the way forward, if it has to regain its lost glory,” said Neipu Rio, Chief Minister of Nagaland, and president of  Naga Peoples Front, the only regional party in the seven states of North East region, ruling the state of Nagaland for third consecutive term.

Cut to Tripura in last ruled left state in India, the present political status of Indigenous National Party of Tripura (INPT)  a regional party raised to address the hopes and aspirations of tribal in the state and was propped by the congress to tackle the growing left domination. However, INPT lost its track and it former guerrilla chief Bijoy Harngkhwal failed to retain his own seat in the last assembly elections. 

The formation of the INPT was pushed through after pressure from the underground National Liberation Front of Tripura, who wanted to unite all tribal nationalist forces in a single party. The INPT is commonly seen as the political branch of NLFT.

Even in tribal belts in the state, ruling left government has made inroads which otherwise should have been the traditional base of the regional parties.
“There is no opposition in Tripura. Congress used INPT to arrest the growth of Marxist rule in the state, it backfired. The alliance government of INPT and Congress of 1988 was a disaster. INPT is a spent force in the state politics,” said a senior journalist of Agartala.

Be it MNF, AGP or INPT all these parties born out of a violent movement espousing the cause of sub-nationalism are now finding it hard to cope with the changing socio-political scenario. The issue of performance, delivery in the democratic setup are taking precedence over the emotional fervour. 

Meanwhile, the present political scenario in Meghalaya where there are host of regional issues like the issue of Inner Line Permit ( ILP) and separate Garoland for Garos which regional parties are flaring in order to gain mileage in the electoral politics. Parties like United Democratic Front, Hill State Peoples Democratic Party and number of other regional parties are trying to exploit the local sentiment but, it is not translating into votes in electoral politics. The fall of newly floated party by former lok sabha speaker P A Sangma who is stalwart in state politics is an indication that when it comes to governance electorate are giving preference to the developmental issues.

The state has a dubious distinction of seeing heights of instability which has seen six chief minister in five years time. But in 2013 assembly elections, Congress got near absolute majority which signalled a big change in voting pattern and consolidation of national parties.   

“Every party needs a dynamic structure to resist the push and pull of changing times. In case of  most regional parties once the spark of movements they were spearheading got over weakness surfaces and experienced campaigner like Congress latched into it ,” said Roy.

This article was published in the Liberty Institute on Saturday, December 14, 2013.
Author : Mr Deb is a journalist based in Shillong, in the North Eastern state of Meghalaya.
Tags- Find more articles on - North East | North East politics | Regional parties

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