At this time of the year, Kohima is packed with people from all over the country. The Nagaland capital not only starts to feel the winter chill, it witnesses a flamboyant display of Naga culture as it hosts the annual Hornbill festival. This year’s edition had a special guest —Narendra Modi came calling dressed as a Naga warrior, a move that won the hearts of Nagas who had often complained that leaders from the mainland shunned them.
In fact, after Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003, no prime minister had visited Nagaland. Manmohan Singh did visit once, but that was for an election campaign in 2008. Modi highlighted the point by saying that “Nagaland is only 15 hours from New Delhi, but it took more than 10 years, after Vajpayeeji, for a prime minister to visit the state”. Modi is definitely trying to build on Vajpayee’s fondness for the Northeast, given the fact that the region got a separate ministry at the Centre — the Department of North East Region (doner) — during the Vajpayee regime.
By spending three days — 29 November to 1 December — covering four states of the Northeast, Modi also became the first prime minister after HD Deve Gowda to have spent more than 48 hours at a stretch in the region.
Visiting two cultural festivals — the other being the Sangai fest in Manipur capital Imphal — inaugurating the second unit of the 363.3 mw Palatana clean energy project in south Tripura and flagging off the maiden railway link to Meghalaya, Modi went on a charm offensive to reach out to the Northeast region.
“For those who believe in Vaastu, ishan kon (the northeastern corner) of a room, is very important,” Modi said in Guwahati while flagging off the first train to Meghalaya. “Similarly for our country, the Northeast is the ishan kon. The eight states are the Ashta Lakshmi (eight goddess of wealth). We need to develop the Northeast region and only then will the country prosper.”
Modi came to the Northeast with a bag full of goodies — Ishan Uday scheme (scholarships for 10,000 students); Ishan Vikas scheme (scholarships for 2,000 college students and 500 faculty members to visit other parts of the country every year); a garment factory in each state; a national sports university in Manipur; and at least six new colleges of agriculture across the region.
The prime minister also declared that the government has earmarked 53,000 crore in the Union Budget for the development of the Northeast, of which 28,000 crore will be used for constructing railway lines, 5,000 crore for improving intra-state power transmission systems and a similar amount for boosting 2G mobile connectivity.
“Modi has been able to generate a huge following here,” says senior journalist Rajeev Bhattacharyya. “People in the Northeast like flamboyant and articulate politicians like him. As far as the announcements go, these were on obvious lines. By attending the cultural festivals in Nagaland and Manipur, he has sent a message that the Centre will try to culturally bring the Northeast closer to mainstream India. But we all wished that he would make his agenda clear about the conflict and the peace process. He ought to have spoken about the flood and land erosion in Assam, which are more important issues than rhino poaching.”
While in Nagaland, Modi described the Northeast as a Natural Economic Zone, but did not talk about the ongoing Naga peace process. In fact, Chief Minister TR Zeliang had urged Modi to breathe new life into the peace process, but failed to elicit any reaction from him.
In Manipur, all eyes were on Modi to see whether he takes a stand on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), but the prime minister chose to remain silent.
While flagging off the first train to Meghalaya, which links the Garo Hills with Assam, Modi did not speak about the growing insurgency in the Garo Hills.
“Modi’s visit to the Northeast is a strong reminder that business is the only thing that matters for his government,” says Suhas Chakma, director of the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights. “The announcement of Rs 28,000 crore for new rail links is meant for business but the failure to utter a single word in Nagaland about the peace process or about the futility of extending AFSPA in Tripura, where 100 times more people die in traffic accidents than insurgency, shows that the most powerful prime minister since Indira Gandhi is clueless about the region. Deve Gowda had similarly announced many things but nothing changed on the ground. The Northeast region desperately needs peace but the prime minister neither spoke about peace nor could say one coherent word about the root causes of the conflict, i.e., illegal immigration from Bangladesh.”
In Assam, Modi did touch on the burning issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh and tried to win the confidence of the people during his speech in Guwahati. “I will do everything possible to ensure that Assam’s border is secured and its interest is not compromised. I will not allow any force to harm Assam,” the prime minister thundered, but those words almost fell flat when Modi informed the gathering that he supports the upa government’s decision to swap land with Bangladesh.
The BJP has been against the deal and that has been the party’s major political card in Assam. Thus Modi left his own party fumbling in the state.
“This is a deal between two countries and Modiji has expressed his view as the prime minister,” says Assam BJP spokesman Shiladitya Dev. “It is the stand of his government and ideally there can be differences in the stand of a party and the government.”
But the state BJP unit and its president Siddartha Bhattacharjee were caught napping when Modi made this announcement and rival parties have already pounced on this goof-up.
The powerful All Assam Students’ Union has launched a statewide protest against the nda government’s stand, something that the BJP perhaps wanted to avoid as it prepares for the 2016 Assembly election in Assam.
Modi also tried to reach out to individual chief ministers. He has requested Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar to make a presentation on 7 December at the chief ministers’ conclave in New Delhi on how he tamed insurgency in his state.
“These are good initiatives,” says Pradyot Manikya Debburman, the royal scion of Tripura and the editor of The Northeast Today magazine. “The idea of promoting the Northeast with a business perspective is good, but can it be done by overlooking the conflict-ridden history of the region? First, Modi should have made his stand clear on all the contentious issues in each state and then focus on creating a new image of the Northeast. And it is not clear which state will get more attention. Will it be poll-bound Assam, where the BJP fancies its chances, or will there be any scope for Mizoram?”
In Kisama, Modi did away with his trademark slogan of “Bharat mata ki jai” and ended his speech with “Kuknalim” (Victory to Nagaland), which left thousands of Nagas clapping with joy. But to see permanent happiness on their faces, Modi will have to focus on the Naga peace process sooner than later.