Election observation: II Doimukh zilla segment

[ Teshi Pipang ]

After prolonged delay, the schedule for the panchayat election in Arunachal Pradesh was finally fixed for 22 December, 2020.

In the II Doimukh zilla parishad constituency, with a population of over three thousand voters, three candidates – one each from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Janata Dal United and the National People’s Party (NPP) contested.

With the BJP in power at the Centre and in the state, it was assumed that the party was going to have a clean sweep in every constituency… as the state of Arunachal Pradesh has a history of bending towards whichever party is in power at the Centre.

And rightly so, the party had an overwhelming lead even before the declaration of the results, securing 96 of the total 240 zilla parishad member (ZPM) posts, 5,410 of the 8,291 gram panchayat member (GPM) posts and five out of the 20 seats for corporators to the Itanagar Municipal Corporation unopposed (Hindustan Times, 10 December, 2020).

However, when viewed at close quarters, many elements were at interplay. Firstly, in the absence of a viable Congress party, other parties like the JD (U), the NPP, and independent candidates gained prominence. This is evident from the poor performance displayed by the Congress by managing to win only 4.04 percent of the total seats, while the BJP secured 70.39 percent.

Even the independent candidates displayed a better performance at 11.87 percent. The NPP was at third spot, JD (U) fourth and PPA 0.11 percent, respectively (MPL News Live).

The credit for the brilliant performance of the JD (U) in the IMC and also in Doimukh constituency was being attributed to the Capital MLA Techi Kaso. The grand old party – the Congress – had a bare minimum to almost nonexistent presence in many of the constituencies. Some buzz could be heard only from Sagalee constituency – the stronghold of former CM Nabam Tuki – the only remaining prominent party loyalist. It could be stated that the dismal presence of the Congress facilitated other national and regional parties to gain prominence. Also, the popular conception among the voters was that the NPP is a part of the BJP-led North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) in the Northeast and JD (U) being the alliance of the BJP in Bihar buoyed the desirability of the candidates contesting from those parties as they were presumed to join the BJP later, despite contesting from those two parties.

In the current scenario, election, politics or any events have ceased to remain confined as a private and inaccessible entity. Though there is dearth of intellectual discourse and objective intervention, the entry of digital and social media platforms have considerably altered the course of politics and elections for the general public. Various videos and interviews of the candidates circulating online invigorated the festive season of election all the more. Speeches by candidates, pre-election and post-result, sent the denizens into a flurry of excitement and disappointment as their leaders succeeded in creating impressive presence while some staggered at even simple articulation.

A common thread that ran among the candidates belonging to the BJP was their contention that, with the BJP in power at both the Centre and the state, they are the credible ones to transform the idea of development into reality. They claimed that attempts of the candidates from other parties towards development would be baseless as they would meet with impediments regarding the sanctioning of funds.

However, there was firm belief among the supporters of those parties and even allegations within the BJP members that many of the local legislators furtively showed favour to candidates from other parties, pushing aside party commitments and propagating clan-based politics, as the candidates belonged to their respective clans. In several gram segments, party members and workers expressed disappointment over the denial of party tickets to the deserving candidates. This, however, didn’t stir any stringent reprimand from the ruling dispensation and party offices on anti-party and defection activities.

While there wasn’t any significant counter to the BJP’s narrative and rhetoric of being the only party of ‘vikaas’, ie, development, resentment on the nature of the BJP’s divisive politics, the issue of assault on minorities, promotion of the Hindutva ideology simmered among the local populace. The setting of polling date around Christmas eve concerned many regarding the party’s intentions, though it was dismissed by the BJP members.

The recent incident of non-allotment of a plot for construction of a church in the Buddhist-dominant home constituency of the current Chief Minister Pema Khandu – Tawang – perturbed others, as they viewed this as the BJP’s ploy against the Christians. These issues, however, didn’t seem to make much impact at the grassroots politics, so as to translate into negative vote against the BJP.

Away from the media and social media hubbub, at the ground level, money, clan and matrimonial alliances remained the binding factors, as has been always the case. While in speeches and rallies, matters like commitment to party ideology, the significance of getting the party ticket and the promises of work and development ricocheted throughout; at the fundamental level of village and family, the campaign itself was started off with the tracing of immediate distant clan/familial ties.

The influential and economically affluent families and clans fully rallied behind their candidates, while the smaller ones too didn’t slack far too behind: many even pitched the notion that the members of prominent clans have already got the opportunity to hold public offices and position; now it should be their turn to do so.

One funny and interesting event during this whole election episode in the II Doimukh zilla segment was the slaughter and distribution of mithun meat to each and every household by the JD (U) candidate. It hit right the pulse of the meat-eating population, that too during the painful lockdown time when even obtaining essential commodities was a daunting affair.

Voters across party and clan affiliations, wouldn’t stop citing about this timely and heart-warming gesture. This event was also reminiscent of the Raj Bhavan incident, when the then governor, JP Rajkhowa, tried to manage the law and order situation of the ‘slaughter of mithun’ by disgruntled Congressmen out of protest, misread in portraying it as ‘cow slaughter’. In the same manner, the said candidate’s act (who eventually won the ZPM seat), though definitely calling for cheers and appreciation, should not let the common public digress from objectively looking at the conspicuous role of money in carrying out such extravagance.

Out of around 100 voters who randomly and informally interacted over a duration of 10 days, 35 percent showed strong and unwavering support based on clan and familial ties, 20 to party affiliations. Many found themselves in a tight spot, as when we look in a close, compact tribal society, everyone is related to everyone as kith and kin. Thus, this group sought time to decide as to whom they would cast their valuable votes for, as they didn’t wish to disappoint any of the candidates for something as transient as an election.

They lamented over the devious nature of the elections, especially the panchayat elections, terming it as the nastiest of all, as it is played at the closest quarters of family and relations – at times breaking the bond beyond repair.

There were also a group of voters who in common parlance of the state are known as ‘dual players’. They would accept money from every candidate, without attaching commitment to anyone yet. They are unpredictable and troublemakers regardless.

One of the most important things missing from the scene was students/youths mobilization; the mobilization of the educated, aware and concerned youths. Though the candidacy saw many young, educated and fresh faces, in terms of striving to elect the right party and candidates, cutting across the lines of clan, money and ignorance, it is still a farfetched dream.

Of all the people met, only four percent under the youth category enthusiastically tendered their support based on the candidate’s eligibility and one cross-questioned about the qualities of the candidate upon which he would decide his vote.

All in all, it is not a lost battle yet. It is regrettable that factors like money and clan predominate elections in Arunachal Pradesh, deterring it from flourishing in the true sense, as the candidates after winning will be busy in returning the favour granted to them and in recovering the money spent in election. However, it also can’t be altogether denied that there is still a flicker of optimism in this whole affair.

It can be said that, though the clan politics operates on the furtherance of the interests of one’s kith and kin, it doesn’t persecute and oppress individuals belonging to other groups as yet, which is writ large in caste and communal politics. It is contingent on the belief of ‘those who can’, and springs from the innate nature of tribal community based on love, fellowship and solidarity.

It would not be wrong here to propose that the existence of innumerable tribes and clans of Arunachal Pradesh at times act as checks and balances from allowing any specific tribe and community from becoming dominant and all powerful and a defence against partisan politics. Even during election period, it was observed that the candidates, especially in the II Doimukh segment, exhibited commendable disposition of camaraderie and reiterated against any personal attacks and ill-speaking about the opponents. For if not anything, at least, this could be taken as a positive start.

However, this quality may fail to hold on its virtues for a long time and eventually start showing its chasm along with one of the most cancerous tentacles of Arunachal politics – money. Thus, it needs to be replaced with nobler elements of education, awareness and common goal for the growth of our villages and state as a whole, and not just one sector or one community, before it takes a more devious form.

The first step towards achieving this would be for voters to be aware of the purpose for which the candidates have been elected and keeping stock of the tasks that they carry out.

Lastly, it remains to be seen if the ruling dispensation will continue to exercise highly controlled decentralization through its various machineries and if the decision-making and fiscal power will be devolved in the true sense to all the elected candidates, irrespective of the parties. Will the Congress revive itself as a substantive alternative? Will the party members resist the pull to switch parties? And upto what extent will the elected candidates succeed in carrying out developmental works?