Anti-graft ‘iron lady’ challenges Rijiju, former CM Tuki in Arunachal

The Arunachal Against Corruption campaign that Toko Sheetal has been a part of has followed a trajectory similar to Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption

April 15, 2024 09:05 pm | Updated 09:53 pm IST - GUWAHATI

Toko Sheetal (left) is the only woman among candidates in the two Lok Sabha seats in the State.

Toko Sheetal (left) is the only woman among candidates in the two Lok Sabha seats in the State. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The battle in Arunachal West, one of India’s largest Lok Sabha constituencies by area, is expected to be between Union Minister Kiren Rijiju of the BJP and former Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Nabam Tuki of Congress.

But as the campaign crescendos to the day of polling on April 19, the buzz is around Toko Sheetal, who defied naysayers to walk more than 2,000 km to Delhi in 2022 to make a statement against “large-scale corruption” in the Frontier State and earn the “iron lady” tag.

The Assam-based Gana Suraksha Party (GSP) has fielded her from the constituency encompassing 33 Assembly seats and areas beyond 15,000 ft above the mean sea level. She is the only woman among candidates in the two Lok Sabha seats — the other is Arunachal East — in the State while eight women are contesting the simultaneous Assembly polls, one of them having won her seat unopposed.

Ms. Sheetal, 43, was associated with the post-COVID Arunachal Against Corruption (AAC), which has followed a trajectory similar to that of the Maharashtra-based Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption (IAC). Like Mr. Hazare, AAC’s founder-activist Sol Dodum has stayed aloof from politics.

“People, mostly from the weaker sections of society, are showing their support for her because they feel she is an iron lady with the courage and resolve to combat corruption,” RTI activist Geli Ete, campaigning for the GSP candidate, tells The Hindu.

“I am not against (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi because I am on the same page as him regarding zero tolerance for corruption. I am against corruption in the State, which is contrary to the image the BJP has at the Centre,” Ms. Sheetal says, trashing theories that she has an ambition to be like a now-jailed product of the IAC campaign – Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

The BJP has trashed her accusations. “The allegations against the BJP-led government in the State are baseless. People know Arunachal Pradesh witnessed unprecedented development under Modiji’s leadership,” Mr. Rijiju, 52, eyeing his third term from the constituency, says.

Ethnic composition

Mr. Rijiju belongs to the Miji or Sajolang community closer to Buddhist groups such as the Monpa and Sherdukpen in the westernmost part of the State. Ms. Sheetal and Mr. Tuki belong to the Abotani group comprising the sizeable Nyishi, Adi, Galo, Apatani, and Tagin communities.

Community affiliation plays a part in elections in the State. The allegedly Hindutva-driven divide between the followers of indigenous faiths and Christianity — both groups in almost equal numbers — is also said to be a factor with the Arunachal Christian Forum having issued a “vote for Congress” circular to show the “anti-Christian” BJP the door.

Mr. Tuki, 56, is confident that the cash-strapped Congress would rise above “vote buying politics” to upset the BJP applecart. “Price rise, stifling of rights, and misrule of the BJP are drawing the people to us. People also know I have the spirit, dedication, and seriousness to serve them,” he says.

Fellow party candidate from the Arunachal East seat, Bosiram Siram is also hopeful of an upset because of the “anti-incumbency” factor against the Tapir Gao, the BJP’s controversial representative.

“There is no harm in dreaming. We will all get to know who the people want on June 4 (the day of counting),” Mr. Gao says.

Arunachal West has a total of eight candidates, including five independents, while three independents are among six candidates in Arunachal East. 

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