Arunachal Pradesh is in a festive mood as India prepares for the biggest democratic exercise in human history. On 9 April, the state will poll for its 60-member Assembly and the two Lok Sabha seats in the state simultaneously. The Congress has already scripted a victory in the state by winning in 11 seats unopposed. The party has been in power since the 1980s. Although Chief Minister Nabam Tuki is one of the 11 legislators who won unopposed, the battle to hold on to his seat is yet to be won.
Tuki won from the Sagalee constituency after his rival, the BJP’s Nabam Tade, withdrew his nomination. In Pakke-Kessang constituency, former health and family welfare minister Atun Welly, who joined the BJP just before election after being denied a Congress ticket, withdrew his nomination clearing the way for the Congress nominee and former deputy chief minister Kameng Dolo.
Interestingly, most of the candidates who have won unopposed are heavyweights — Rural Development Minister Tanga Byaling from Nacho, Tourism Minister Pema Khandu from Mukto, Parliamentary Secretary Nabam Rebia from Doimukh, former minister Lombo Tayeng from Mebo, to name a few.
The BJP, which is trying to pose a challenge to the Congress in Arunachal Pradesh, is crying foul. It has already complained to the Election Commission that Tade’s signatures were forged to make way for Tuki. “Opposition candidates are being threatened and intimidated. The Congress is using muscle power. We have lodged a strong protest with the EC since democracy is being killed this way,” says state BJP president Tai Tagak.
While the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi campaigned in Arunachal Pradesh, the political turf war in the state is a different ball game. It is not the party but individual politicians who are important in the frontier state.
While the Congress government’s term in the state was to end on 4 November, the Assembly was dissolved for early polls at the Cabinet’s request. Insiders say, Tuki decided to dissolve the Assembly fearing that Finance and Planning Minister Chowna Mein Along and former chief minister Jarbom Gamlin would topple his government. According to sources, they even had the support of Congress MLAs, and the blessings of state Congress chief Mukut Methi.
The unopposed victory of 11 candidates, mostly from the Tuki camp of the party, indicates strong factional politics within the Congress.
Following the death of chief minister Dorjee Khandu in April 2011, Gamlin became the chief minister for 180 days, at the end of which Tuki toppled him to become the chief minister. This time, Tuki is on shaky ground. A Congress victory with a huge margin might not ensure him a chief ministerial berth. The opposition faction might prop up the name of the state Congress chief Mukut Methi, who was the chief minister during 1999-2003.
“In Arunachal Pradesh, people are immune to corrupt politicians and they influence people to be corrupt. Elections are like festivals; there is huge flow of booze and cash as votes are sold at will,” says Jon Tamai, a local from Tezu.
Mopin, the most popular festival of the Galo tribe in the state, is just a few days ahead of the polls and has already set the tone for election festivity to woo voters. In fact, people in some areas have stopped going to work; voters can be seen moving from one rally to other, not to listen to poll promises but to claim freebies.
According to locals, huge feasts with cash, meat and alcohol are on offer. “In Arunachal Pradesh, even if the candidates do not offer cash, voters will demand for money in exchange for votes. There is no awareness,” explains Tashi Thsering.
In Arunachal, elections are fought on local issues. Tribal laws to matrimony to inter-clan disputes generate high-voltage poll rhetoric. With over 20 major tribes in the state, clan is a major issue — it is believed that the larger the clan of a candidate, the higher are his chances of winning.
According to EC sources, till 25 March nearly Rs 1 crore was seized in the state, besides huge qualities of foreign liquor, blankets and aluminum sheets, which were to be distributed among voters.
If someone is bothered, it is Chief Minister Tuki. Even though he won the Assembly poll unopposed, the Congress might get fewer seats as the BJP, led by the former Congress stalwart Gegong Apang, is trying hard to make a dent in the state. Apang served as the chief minister of Arunachal for 22 years before being tainted in the infamous pds scam and the Congress sidelined him. He joining the BJP in February taking away a section of dejected Congress leaders with him.
Sources in the BJP claim that the party is hopeful of getting at least 10 seats in Arunachal Pradesh, which if achieved would be a big electoral success. But Apang’s switching sides to the BJP is not new. In 2003, he led the 42-day BJP government in the state, the only time the BJP was in power in any northeastern state.
“People of Arunachal Pradesh are fed up with the Congress. They want change and the BJP is the alternative. We will surely make inroads,” says Apang, who is perhaps the only politican in Arunachal who knows the art of breaking the Congress.
Since 1980, when the state was still a Union Territory, it has always been the Congress or its rebel groups like the Arunachal Congress that won Assembly polls. The Congress is banking heavily on the Rs 10,000 crore road package granted to Arunachal in 2008, huge investments in hydropower, rail connectivity and airport. The BJP will try to use anti-incumbency and try to become at least a sizeable opponent. For Chief Minister Tuki, all these should not be an issue. He has foes within the party to save his chair from.