Till not very long ago, the Northeast was seen as the most isolated, neglected part of India. As such, the mainstream media was never very vocal about issues concerning the Northeastern states of India.
Traditionally, Northeast never made “breaking news” and headlines, unless there was a terror attack or a bomb blast. While an hour of rain and waterlogging in the “mainland” cities and states makes it to headlines and breaking news, even devastating floods did not grab mainstream media’s attention and focus, notwithstanding their catastrophic character.
Ever since 2014 however the mainstream media has become more conscious of the Northeast coinciding with the BJP’s rise in the region. While the object of the Lutyens’ dominated mainstream media is to corner the Modi-Shah duo, the media coverage has brought the region into spotlight.
A necessary corollary of the region’s neglect was that the Northeastern leaders, except perhaps the Assam Chief Minister, were never seen as mainstream, national leaders. Chief Ministers of the Northeastern states, such as Arunachal Pradesh or Tripura, never really got the kind of importance and attention that Chief Ministers from the so called politically crucial states- say Uttar Pradesh or Bihar got.
However, Prime Minister Modi made it a point to bring leaders from the Northeast into the mainstream as a part of his larger agenda of brisk development in the Northeast.
After being sworn into power in the year 2014, he inducted Sarbananda Sonowal, the present Assam Chief Minister, as the Union Minister of State-Independent Charge for Youth Affairs and Sports.
Kiren Rijiju, another prominent leader from the Northeast served at a critical portfolio- the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs throughout the first tenure of the Modi government. In the second term of Modi government, he has been given independent charge for Youth Affairs and Sports.
With this, PM Modi has ensured that Northeast is not unfairly neglected as far as representation in the central ministry is concerned. This also gives the region a strong sense of relevance at the national policy-making level.
It is because of PM Modi’s outreach that today leaders from the Northeast are being given the kind of attention that they always deserved.
In 2018, India Today had held a conclave at Kolkata called the “India Today Conclave East 2018”. The event featured several prominent leaders from the Northeast such as Tripura CM Biplab Kumar Deb, Meghalaya CM Conrad Sangma, Manipur CM N Biren Singh and Arunchal Pradesh CM Pema Khandu.
National news television which has ignored the leaders from the Northeast for decades is now clearly feeling compelled to cover such leaders. Moreover, leaders like North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) Chairman, Himanta Biswa Sarma now make regular appearances on mainstream media.
BJP’s key man in the Northeast, Himanta Biswa Sarma has emerged as a leader with national relevance in his own right. His persona is no lesser than any other local political heavyweight from any other party of India.
When the region witnessed a brief stage of turmoil following the passage of CAA in the Parliament, and intense fear-mongering and rumouring in Assam and the Northeast, it received even greater coverage. Even though the main object of the mainstream media was to inflict damage upon the Modi-Shah duo by picking up the brief crisis, the coverage by itself brought the Northeastern leaders into limelight.
As the Modi government has succeeded in bringing the Northeast and its leaders into spotlight, the Northeastern leaders themselves seem to be taking greater interest in national affairs.
Recently, after Sitaram Yechury announced that his comrades will stage a protest against US President Donald Trump while he visits India, Biplab Deb quoted a PTI tweet and asked if the protest would include all of the party’s 3 workers.
All the three party workers? 😂 https://t.co/EInQRY6P6c
— Biplab Kumar Deb (@BjpBiplab) February 13, 2020
On another of Yechury’s statements, where the man said that the ‘people gave a befitting reply to BJP’s politics of hate and violence’, Biplab Deb replied with, “Look who is talking about befitting reply to hate and violence, the party which has got less votes than NOTA and follows the leftist ideology.”
Look who is talking about befitting reply to hate and violence, the party which has got less votes than NOTA and follows the leftist ideology. https://t.co/EvHgAsZAYA
— Biplab Kumar Deb (@BjpBiplab) February 12, 2020
Yechury, of course, doesn’t come from the Northeast and the issues he was speaking about didn’t concern the Northeast either. But Northeastern leaders are no longer to be seen as highly localised leaders who do not have a say in national affairs.
Biplab Kumar Deb’s comments show how both the Northeast and its leaders are now taking a regular part in the larger national discourse.
Now that we are talking of Biplab Deb’s involvement in the larger national discourse, it must be borne into mind that the Tripura CM had flown to Delhi last year to receive the Bangladesh PM, Sheikh Hasina after the latter requested a specific meeting with the Tripura CM.
India thus found a Bengali speaking leader in Biplab Deb in its pursuit of closer ties with the neighbouring country of Bangladesh. The hot and cold relationship between West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and the Bangladesh Prime Minister over the Teesta Water treaty was not allowing India and Bangladesh to make full use of the historical and linguistic affinity in the present bilateral relations. But the two countries found a clear alternative in Biplab Deb- the Chief Minister of the Bengali speaking state of Tripura.
Apart from strengthening Indo-Bangladesh ties, the move also illustrated the enhanced role of Tripura India’s Northeastern leaders in India’s bilateral relations, especially when it comes to India’s neighbours in the Northeastern region.
All of India’s seven Northeastern states share international boundaries, including boundaries with the friendly neighbours of Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh.
Emergence of Northeastern leaders at a national level therefore entails larger geopolitical and diplomatic benefits for India. With Modi government at the helm of affairs, Northeastern leaders are suddenly in the spotlight as a part of the national discourse.