“I have a three-point programme. One, development. Two, development. Three, development,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at a rally in Kokrajhar in Assam’s Bodoland Territorial Area District on Monday. “The solutions to all the problems in Bodoland lie in development.”
The rally took place a day after the Bodoland People’s Front and the Bharatiya Janata Party announced that they would be fighting the Assam assembly polls in an alliance. The grounds looked festive as thousands of people trooped in and BPF flags fluttered in the wind. BJP supporters were in a minority here, occasionally brandishing a party flag for the cameras.
So far, the alliance between the two parties looks largely transactional, with the BPF keen to reap the dividends of allying with the party in power at the Centre. Before Modi arrived, Hagrama Mohilary, chief executive member of the Bodoland Territorial Council and chairperson of the BPF, took the stage and trotted out a laundry list of demands.
“Our BTC is very backward,” said Mohilary. “We request you to develop it. You gave us Rs 500 crores and with that we built a lot of infrastructure. If you give us another Rs 1,000 crore, it will be very good for the BTC.”
The monetary largesse would not be for infrastructure alone. Mohilary raised the question of the families who had been hit by ethnic violence in the area. He asked Modi to pay Rs 5 lakh for each affected family. Apart from financial handouts, Mohilary asked the prime minister to find solutions for ethnic disputes involving Bodos, Adivasis, Rajbanshis and Karbi Anglongs.
Roads, bridges and ST status
Modi, in turn, was magnanimous. He recounted a conversation with Mohilary where the BPF leaders had reportedly asked him to “give with an open heart”. “Ab toh dil bhi khol gaya hai, haat bhi khol gaya hai [now my heart has opened, my hands have also opened],” said the prime minister, though he stopped short of naming a figure.
He started with apologising to the crowd for turning up late to the rally. “I was in Sikkim and I got late leaving. You had to wait for me and for that I must ask your forgiveness,” he said. “But I am not so late that you have to wait for development, not so late that you have to fight for your rights. I have come in your midst at a time when there is a new possibility of unity. People have set aside their differences and come together to work for development.”
The prime minister emphasised issues of infrastructure and employment. The region needed roads, bridges, railways and waterworks. These projects would bring with them employment for the youth. To generate more employment, he proposed that the youth from the North East be employed in police forces in other parts of the country.
“Shouldn’t Bodoland know the same development that is happening in other parts of the country?” he demanded. He mentioned the Jan Dhan Yojana scheme and said it had succeeded in opening 20 crore bank accounts for the poor across the country. He promised 24 hours of electricity in all villages before 2022, the 75th year of Independence. He also proposed to work towards homes for everyone. “The poorest of the poor should have a home of their own,” he said. “And a home with electricity, water, toilets and a school nearby for children to go to.”
Poll ops promised by Modi included deemed university status for the Central Institute of Technology in Kokrajhar, extending the Kanchenjunga Express services up to Silchar in the Barak Valley and developing Rupsi Airport once issues relating to land acquisitions were solved.
Apart from developmental promises, Modi assured the crowd that the cabinet would approve the demand for Scheduled Tribe status for Karbis in the plain districts and Bodos in the hill districts.
Congress and corruption
Pointing out how backward the Bodo districts still were, the prime minister lashed out at the Congress. “I am disturbed that the Congress government has been in power in Assam for 15 years and at the Centre for 10 years,” said Modi, pointing out that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had been elected to the Rajya Sabha from Assam. “They couldn’t do anything in 15 years and they expect me to do everything in 15 month.”
He went on to attack the Congress for corruption. “We make so many allocations in the budget but we don’t know where it goes. Where does it go?” Modi demanded amid howls of approval from the crowd. “Where does it go? Where does it go? They are not getting the chance to loot anymore, that is why they are angry with us. Rajiv Gandhi used to say, one rupee goes out of Delhi and by the time it reaches the villages it becomes 15 paise. But whose pockets does it go into on the way?”
“The Assam government must give an account, the North East must give an account, this is public money,” continued Modi. He proposed a system under which officials from the Central donor ministries would come to the North East and monitor how the money was spent. This system could be applied to other governments in the region as well.
Amid the noisy promises and demands, however, there some crucial silences. Both Modo and Mohilary spoke of development for all ethnic groups but left out one significant minority – the rather large Muslim population that inhabits Bodoland. Only Himanta Biswa Sharma, who left the Congress last year to join the BJP, took the stage briefly to speak of a Bodoland that would hold all groups, including Muslims.