Rig-marole of the Northeast polls

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Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem
Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem

The ongoing General Election has turned out to be a trendsetter of sorts, at least for the Northeast. Never before had the 25 Lok Sabha seats in this remote region assumed such significance from the point of view of the national political parties, the media and the Election Commission (EC).

Power in the Northeast had hitherto been the preserve of the Congress or the state-specific political forces. But this time, with the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi crisscrossing the region with a dozen rallies, the Congress has pushed the panic button and the regional outfits are fastening their seat belts. The polls have seen high turnouts and multi-cornered fights.

But there is an unsavoury highlight of these polls as well: the umpteen reports of rigging from almost every state in the region, alleged to have been carried out by nearly every political party. The EC is probing the allegations and there have been repolls in several cases. It seems all the political outfits, national or regional, have adopted all means, fair or foul, to retain their seats and increase their tally.

The BJP has demanded an EC probe into allegations of “manipulation” in voting through postal ballots during the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls held simultaneously in Arunachal Pradesh on 9 April. The party claims that many government employees on election duty were not issued postal ballots and, therefore, could not exercise their franchise. This was done allegedly to reduce the chances of the employees voting against the incumbent Congress. This is a serious charge as it amounts to denying the democratic right of certain sections of the electorate and could distort the electoral outcome.

In Assam, an entire team of polling officials, including the presiding officer, were arrested on charges of booth capturing and rigging. A television news channel aired footage of the rigging, carried out with the help of the officials at a polling booth in the Guwahati Lok Sabha constituency on 24 April. It caused a political storm, leading to repolling at the booth on 28 April. Though this happened in a seat that saw a multi-cornered contest involving the Congress, the BJP, the Asom Gana Parishad and the All India United Democratic Front, the ruling Congress has tried to wash its hands off the controversy.

Left-ruled Tripura, too, was not untouched by the phenomenon, as video footage showing Left Front cadres rigging the polls came to light. While the Opposition parties in the state, including the Congress and the BJP, took to the streets demanding action, the EC is yet to take notice. Many in Tripura believe that the EC acted in the Assam case as that state sends 14 MPs to the Lok Sabha, while Tripura sends only two. The communists rule the roost in Tripura and the state is seen to be almost irrelevant in national-level decision-making.

In Nagaland, where the Congress is in the Opposition, the party asked for repolling in as many as 1,000 booths, alleging large-scale manipulation of votes. No less than 15 booths in the state saw more than 100 percent turnout.

As results in the Assembly polls in the northeastern states are sometimes decided by a margin of just one vote, it is even more important for the EC to probe every allegation of electoral malpractice from the region. However, as the elections take place in the backdrop of decades-long insurgencies and ethnic unrest, the EC’s prime focus has always been on averting militant attacks during polls.

Meanwhile, some political parties continue to use insurgents in the electoral arena. The EC is probing allegations by the Congress and the BJP that NSCN(IM) cadres captured booths and rigged the polls in the Outer Manipur seat in favour of the Naga Peoples’ Front candidate.

The tug of war between the political parties over poll rigging will become even more intense. This is only a reflection in the mainstream political space of the fight for supremacy among different communities. With national parties like the BJP and the Congress battling it out in the region, the space for regional politics is shrinking. And therefore the use of force to keep political power is only going to increase.

It’s high time the EC took serious note of poll rigging in the Northeast and enforced more effective preventive measures.

ratnadip@tehelka.com

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