New Delhi: Though Arunachal Pradesh went to polls in the first phase for both the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, allegations of violence, booth capturing and other corrupt practices have ensured another round of re-polls after the re-polls were affected by the same practices. The tenor has reached such a pitch that the 2019 elections have been dubbed as the ‘darkest’ in the state’s history. Evidently, the state has become a battleground of sorts, though votes are not the only weapons in the mix.
The Underground Factor
Members of various Naga armed political groups have been accused of interfering in the election process. On March 30, two party workers of the National People’s Party (NPP) were abducted by alleged Naga underground cadres in Tirap district. They were beaten mercilessly and one of them succumbed to his injuries and died. The other is recovering but has sustained injuries to kidneys. James Sangma, Meghalaya’s Home Minister and the brother of NPP president, Conrad Sangma, has contributed towards the treatment. Reports indicate that the underground cadres involved in the assault belong to those factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland that are currently in talks with the Government of India. Considering that similar reports have come from Manipur, one may not be wrong in presuming that the groups have a stake in a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) victory.
The Arunachal Pradesh unit of NPP has accused the BJP of hiring the Naga undergrounds to target non-BJP candidates. This, of course, creates a conundrum for the top leadership of the NPP as Conrad Sangma accompanied Prime Minister Narendra Modi when the latter filed his nomination papers for Varanasi.
However, considering the NPP’s prime objective of becoming the voice for the entire Northeast, this political alignment is understandable. Since regional parties have had a traditional rival in the Congress, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.
In Conrad Sangma’s home state of Meghalaya, the Congress emerged as the single largest party, however, an NPP-led coalition has formed the government. However, as evidence of a fragile partnership, Conrad Sangma vociferously and publicly opposed the BJP’s pet project, the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
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Kra Daadi and Kurung Kumey
Apart from the eastern districts of Tirap, Changlang and Longding, Kra Daadi and Kurung Kumey districts also witnessed violence and vandalism. Initially, due to allegations and counter-allegations of violence and counter-violence, emanating from the opposition parties and BJP, the April 11 polls were cancelled and re-polling was ordered.
However, ahead of the repolls on April 27, ‘miscreants’ snapped the cables on the bridges leading to the polling stations. On April 25, Bengia Tamang, a gaon burah (village headman) was shot dead allegedly by a BJP supporter. The gaon burah was a worker for the NPP. On May 3, Arunachal Times reported that two people have been arrested in connection with the killing. However, there was no mention of their political affiliations.
On April 29, perhaps due to frustration with the slow pace of the investigation and the lack of arrests, a group of protestors, most of whom were women, ransacked the Superintendent of Police’s office in Koloriang. On the same day, 37 gelatin sticks were recovered from the helipad at Koloriang, the district headquarters of Kurung Kumey. People believe that these sticks were placed there to disrupt the helicopters carrying the electronic voting machines (EVMs) used in the re-polls.
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Winning without fighting
One factor which may have contributed to the current electoral crisis is that the BJP government in Arunachal Pradesh is not an elected government. It is true that the individual members of the legislative Assembly were elected. However, none of them currently serving in the state government were elected as BJP candidates. Instead, in December 2015, a coup of sorts took place where the Governor, JP Rajkhowa overstepped his constitutional mandate and dissolved the Assembly.
Kalikho Pul was then appointed as Chief Minister. However, following the Supreme Court’s judgement on the constitutionality of the decision, the Nabam Tuki-led Congress government was reinstated. However, he soon stepped down in favour of Pema Khandu, who was with the Congress at the time. Khandu acted swiftly and switched to the People's’ Party of Arunachal (PPA) with the rest of the Congress MLAs and finally settled for BJP bringing his flock in tow.
What is worth stating in this divine comedy is that the mandate of the people of Arunachal Pradesh was neither for BJP nor for PPA, but for Congress. Therefore, the state BJP probably feels they have to ‘prove’ that the popular mandate is theirs.
However, with the disastrous Permanent Resident Certificate (PRC) issue in February this year, where in the aftermath, the BJP was blamed, and earlier the Trans Arunachal Highway (TAH) scam, the BJP has painted itself into a corner. Add to this the disquiet over the Citizenship Amendment Bill and one can see the BJP facing a tough time ideologically. This is not to deny that like in many parts of India, electors vote for candidates more than they vote for parties.
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With the BJP on the backfoot ideologically, the opposition parties naturally would get ready for the kill. However, with all sides desperate to prove their majority, escalation is bound to occur. On April 3, the Election Commission of India (ECI) seized Rs. 1 crore from a government vehicle. The cash was claimed by the son of a BJP candidate. The same day Rs. 80 lakh was seized from a private vehicle owned by a former MLA. Thus, before the polls, the stakes were already high given the value of the seizures. To place these figures in perspective, the expenditure limit for a candidate in an election is Rs. 28 or 70 lakh, depending on whether it is an assembly or parliamentary election. However, the seizure is only illustrative of the kind of money that accompanies elections in Arunachal Pradesh which has a population of only … as per the 2011 census. The ensuing violence may be perceived as candidates protecting their ‘investment’.
Debate on Elections
The debate at present in Arunachal Pradesh is on whether candidates whose party members are involved in electoral offences ought to be disqualified. At present the Representation of the People Act provides for electoral offences, however, the standard set for disqualifying a candidate is very strict. This may have been done so as to avoid a situation where a frivolous case is the reason for a candidate to be disqualified. Similarly, there are no provisions penalising a candidate for the actions of the party supporters. Such cases are individually dealt with under other provisions of law.
This has created a grey area where the party workers may be goaded into committing electoral offences in the favour of their candidate with only the individuals involved being liable to face any punitive action. However, bringing about such an electoral reform cannot be done in a knee-jerk manner. Just as frivolous cases may be filed by an incumbent government to disqualify a rival party’s candidate, here too, party workers of one party may pose as those of another party. Yet what the current situation in Arunachal Pradesh regarding the 2019 elections displays is the fragility of electoral democracy.