Has the Congress learned its lesson?
The Congress High Command, that is, the party president and vice-president seem to have learnt their lesson after being stung by party rebels in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. In both the States, the Congress lost power. The rebel legislators put the blame squarely on the high command which, they alleged, had been quite unresponsive to their repeated complaints against their respective State party bosses.
This time, the rebellion spread to Manipur, another Congress-ruled State. As many as 25 of the 47 Congress legislators (in a House of 60) voiced their unhappiness with the leadership of Chief Minister Okram Ibobi. They demanded a cabinet reshuffle, the resignation of ten sitting ministers and induction of ten new ones from amongst them. They also wanted Ibobi’s close friend Gaikhangam to give up one of the two offices he is holding – deputy Chief Minister and PCC president. The rebels threatened that if their grievances were not redressed, they might walk over to the BJP. If they did, yet another Congress bastion was to fall to the saffron party.
Faced with the crisis, this time, the Congress High command responded to the rebel challenge with great alacrity. A “revamping” of the PCC was set in motion. One demand of the rebels has already been conceded: Gaikhangam has been removed as PCC president and T. N. Haokip, MLA, has replaced him. Indications are that the High Command is determined to nip the trouble in the bud and not allow it to grow into a full-blown crisis.
But rebellion within the party is not the only problem facing Ibobi. There are the umpteen armed insurgent groups operating in the State. Unlike in Assam or Nagaland or Mizoram, the insurgency continues to bedevil Manipur. The State police and para-military Assam Rifles have failed to bring them to their knees despite decades of anti-insurgency operations. There are about forty-odd big and small, active and dormant, insurgent groups. They cannot “liberate” Manipur from India but they have enough nuisance value to hold up vital development work by extorting huge ransom after kidnapping men and officers working on various projects.
One such project is the 85-km long Jiribam-Tulpul railway line. It will form a part of the proposed Trans-Asian Railway (TAR) which will connect New Delhi with Hanoi running through Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia into Vietnam. Before going into the problem that has brought this project to a virtual standstill in Manipur, its immense importance from trade and commerce points of view may be briefly outlined.
The TAR network agreement was signed in November 2006, by seventeen Asian nations. It is to form part of a far larger network connecting some major railway routes like the existing Trans-Siberian Railway linking Moscow with Vladivostok which is not very far from Russia’s borders with China and North Korea. Another is the corridor connecting China, Mongolia, Russia, and Tazaksktan. Yet another proposed route is Dostyk on the Chinese border to Gorgan in Iran. In fact, TAR is a vital part of India’s ‘Look East’ policy.
What has brought construction work on the Jiribam-Tulpul railway line practically to a standstill is the insurgency. There are about forty-odd big and small, active and dormant insurgency groups operating in Manipur. They will never be able to ‘liberate’ Manipur but have enough nuisance value to carry on extortion and kidnapping. The two are inter-related. Kidnapping helps extortion. The State police and the para-military Assam Rifles have so far failed either to liquidate the insurgent groups or to negotiate separate ceasefires with them.
About a dozen militant groups are forcing the companies engaged in the construction work of the railway line to pay through their nose by extortion and kidnapping of men and officers working on it.
One of these is a small group calling itself the Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF). Its strength is estimated at just two dozen plus. It kidnapped the official of a construction company engaged in the project in January this year and reportedly demanded a huge ransom. After this, panicky workers and managerial staff of the company fled from the construction site for fear of life. This has stopped all work on the project.
To make matters worse, almost every party and every party faction in a party maintain clandestine contacts with one or the other group of militants. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement. The influence wielded by these politicians also affects anti-insurgency operations. Militants operate with more ease in the hills of the State, covered with thick forests. It is an old problem in the north-east.
The construction of the broad gauge line between Lumding and Silchar in Assam was delayed for years due to the depredations of Karbi militant bodies like the Dima Halam Daoga. That line was ultimately built. But insurgency continues to play havoc with development work in Manipur. Ibobi has to find an out-of-the-box solution to deal with the insurgency.
(The author is a political analyst. The views expressed are strictly personal.)