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Beyond elections

Beyond elections

Rangan Dutta |

From a historical perspective, the  BJP&’s electoral victory in Assam may be seen as the most significant political develop-ment since the successful effort of Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi to get the state out of the infamous Grouping Scheme of the British to tag it with Muslim-majority Bengal. The statement may not please secularists but the fact remains that this is the first time, since electoral party politics began in Assam – after the grant of provincial autonomy under the Government of  Of India Act 1935 – that a party, other than the Congress, has emerged as an umbrella organisation for the state&’s  diverse ethno-linguistic, cultural and tribal groups; and has even got support from a section of Muslim youth.

The anti-incumbency factor notwithstanding, this verdict reflected the impatience of the youth about the continuing growth loss in the economy with diminished job prospects, a stagnant formal sector and tardy growth of infrastructure. Its main cause is the mismatch between the expanded higher education and technical skill teaching facilities and job opportunities in Assam,  and this holds good for the North-east as a whole. It has pushed thousands of youngsters of Assam to other parts – a phenomenon considered unthinkable in the 1960s, and even in the 1980s. It must have been a factor in the elections.

It was despite the fact that Assam and the North-east did grow at six per cent from 2007-2008 but that was not fast enough to meet rising aspirations. And there is a widely-held perception – there has been a convergence of aspirations among all ethnic groups due to  education, skill development, electronic media, easier travel and the fact that roughly 50 universities of the region are churning out qualified youth. The competition for jobs has become severe and that has added to social tension. As movement of labour from the North-east continues to avoid recurrence of the 2012 type situation, the states in the region, especially Assam, should establish a directorates of migrant labour. Much like the way Kerala monitors and promotes movement of its workers to the Gulf and elsewhere, by setting up facilities for market- need based skill teaching to youth keen to work abroad. The economic dividend of such an investment is huge as skilled or even semi- skilled employ-ment provides better wages and working conditions than those who go out without any formal skill certificate.

It is thus imperative for Assam to reorient its skill development strategy to meet demand outside, as it is  unlikely to see largescale job opportunities within.  In this scenario, the reported demand by Assam for a grant of Rs 10,000 crore as one-time support, could be seen, at best, a step to stabilise the state&’s  finances but  what it needs now is a vision statement .The North Eastern Council Vision  2020 could be a framework and it is time to go about it just like the National Institution for Transforming India Ayog has initiated for the country. 

The unrest in the North-east is not only the outcome of economic backwardness –  fas-hionable for economists and some political analysts to underscore –rather, it is the unrivalled cultural diversity and ethnicity and with it goes a lot of messiness reflected in the form of violent identity politics. That creates conditions, which make it convenient for the authorities to invoke the Disturbed Areas Act and Armed Forces (Special Powers)Act, and this has been the real cause of growth loss – roughly estimated at two per cent annually from the Ninth  Plan. Worse, natural-resource rich states went all out for extraction of the same unmindful of its consequences, one of which was that it provided a ground for extortion-based militancy producing strong symptoms of the Sub-Saharan syndrome.

To stem this drift towards a disastrous rentier political economy, the North-east needs a broad-based political and cultural platform to work out a common agenda of development with serious efforts to capitalise the commonalities rather than the differences. This was the vision of the NEC Act but it failed because it was reduced to a political platform without a socio-cultural “bridge”. Can  the BJP- led regional party, the newly-formed North East Democratic Alliance, succeed in playing the role of providing bridges for the region&’s ethnic groups, often working at cross purposes, to reach and build a platform for development with peace? That is the big question before the region rather than its electoral prospects. This could be the only base to foreclose the unending demands for new states. The political and development experience of the North-east since 1947 holds a lesson that a perpetual state of reorganisation and development requiring common act-ion and regional approach do not go together.

It is time to change the mindset, which is keen to find a new “other” by exaggerating  differences. Promoting ideas of social cohesion will, therefore, be the real task ahead for the BJP-led gvernment in Assam and the emerging NEDA.

The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre.