After Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, will the lotus bloom in Manipur – as 60 assembly seats go up for grabs when polls are held on March 4 and 8 – even as the Congress eyes a fourth consecutive term, despite the OkramIbobi Singh government facing strong anti-incumbency?
Surrounded by blue hills, and endowed with natural, pristine beauty aplenty, this melting pot of cultures and the birthplace of polo, ‘Manipur’ literally means ‘jewelled land’.
But, there are more than half a dozen issues that challenge both the national parties, the ruling party, Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in this north-eastern state in the forthcoming electoral battle. Now, it is to be seen who the 78.9 million voters will favour.
Much before the entire country underwent the pains of demonetisation silently; the people of Manipur had begun to feel the pinch in their daily lives due to the indefinite economic blockade imposed by the United Naga Council (UNC) since November 1, 2016. The UNC had imposed the blockade against the decision to create seven new districts by bifurcation of the existing ones and upgradation of Sadar Hills to a full-fledged district as it undermines the idea of Nagalim, the unity of the Nagas in Manipur.
As result of the economic blockade of national highways – NH2 (between Nagaland and Manipur) and NH37 (between Assam and Manipur), which are the lifelines of the state – the prices of essential commodities have skyrocketed in this land-locked state. The UNC claims that these are ‘ancestral Naga areas’.
While the Congress asserts that the decision to bifurcate districts was aimed at administrative efficiency and has debated for the last two years, the BJP sees the move as a political one. According to the state BJP president, K Bhabananda Singh, the Congress was facing tough anti-incumbency after three terms. “They know they will lose the assembly polls,” he asserted.
Political observers feel that the bifurcation has created a rift in the unity between the Kukis and the Nagas in the hills due to the creation of the Sadar Hills district. Also, it has helped the ruling party to reach out to the dominant Meitei community of the valley due to the ongoing blockade.
Can BJP make it to power in Manipur?
No doubt the BJP has been decimating Congress rule in several states over the last few years. This picked up speed with the inauguration of the NarendraModi government at the centre in May 2014. So much so that the saffron wave swept over Assam, and later, through backdoor maneuverings, Arunachal Pradesh fell in its kitty as legislators joined the BJP en masse.
Can Manipur be its next trophy? Despite the RashtriyaSwayemsevakSangh – the ideological mentor of the ruling BJP – trying to make inroads and working in the state, whether the BJP actually captures power is a big question.
Yet, the RSS has been working hard for the last few months in the state. To achieve this objective of the party, the North East Development Alliance (NEDA) was inaugurated by the BJP president, Amit Shah, in June 2016. The chief ministers of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, nd Sikkim were present at the conclave.
A key strategist in the region is HimantaBiswaSarma, NEDA convener and in-charge of Manipur, who is all set to implement BJP’s call for ‘Congress MuktBharat’ (Congress-free India).
“Neda’s political objective is to have a non-Congress government in each of the north-eastern states within a year. Our immediate target is to uproot the Congress in Manipur polls in 2017 and Meghalaya (2018),”Sarma had declared, adding that he wants 23 seats from the Parliament seat tie-up in the north-east with BJP, in the 2019 general elections.
BJP is gaining ground in Manipur. This can be seen from the recently concluded Imphal municipal elections in the state, where the BJP won 10, Congress 12 and Independents five of the 27 seats last month. Compare this to one seat that it had won in 2011. No doubt this win is likely to boost the party’s chances in the Assembly polls.
But, reasons are on ground for everybody to see. Firstly, questions are being raised about what the centre (read BJP) has done to mitigate the hardshipsofManipuris due to the economic blockade. Secondly, many of the voters allege that BJP is supporting the blockade imposed by the UNC. Thirdly, even KJoykishan, leader of the BJP legislature wing in the Assembly, resigned from the party and joined the Congress party. He questioned the indifference of the Modi government to the crisis in the wake of the continuing road blockades.
With too many contenders for the post of chief minister, the BJP has entered the electoral battle and is seeking votes in the name of development and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But, many voters fear that lending support to BJP will mean polarisation – who will take on the Nagas?
Other players who will play a crucial role include the Trinamool Congress, which won seven seats in the 2012 elections, human rights activist, IromSharmila’s People’s Resurgence & Justice Alliance (PRJA) Party, the Naga People’s Front (NPF) and the National People’s Party (NPP).
A strong contender in some hill districts, NPF, an ally of the BJP in Nagaland, is expected to enter a post-electoral alliance. For the moment, it has decided to go alone in Manipur. The NPP, another partner of the NDA, too is battling single-handedly.
The Left parties, NCP, AAP and JDU have formed the Left Democratic Front. NCP has 10 MLAs in the current house with a total strength of 60.
Anti-Incumbency: A Factor
No doubt, a 15-year-long rule is a reason for worry. The Ibobi-led Congress government is no exception in Manipur. Anti-Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts Allianceactivist, Irom Chanu Sharmila, could be contesting against Ibobi from Thoubal constituency. Ibobi has nurtured it for more than a decade now. His real concern is the 39 seats dominated by his own community, the Meiteis – the state’s largest ethnic bloc that can sway the election results as RSS is trying to make inroads into the community.
That’s not all when it comes to stakeholders in Manipur. A reason for this is any electoral battle in Manipur should have the blessing of militant groups. If not, the groups ensure that the particular party is eliminated or defeated.
Also, it has to be seen how the recent Naga Peace Accord plays on the polls in Manipur. The Accord with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), signed last year, promises that 5,000 cadres of the NSCN-IM would be drafted into the Border Security Force (BSF) as part of their rehabilitation process. Despite close to a year, there are practical difficulties in implementing this plan, and also differences within the various wings of the central government and states.
In addition, Manipur is in the grip of agitation demanding the introduction of Inner Line Permit (ILP) aimed at checking the influx of non-locals into the state. The Inner Line Permit is a special authorisation required to enter certain restricted areas in the country, and currently, such a system exists in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Mizoram.
The Manipur Assembly had passed three controversial bills – The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh) Amendment Bill, 2015 (MLRLR Bill 2015), The Protection of Manipur People Bill, 2015 and The Manipur Shops and Establishments Act (Second) Amendment Bill, 2015. But the presidential assent was withheld without assigning any reason this year.
When the election results are out on March 11, we will know which way Manipur exercised its tough choice between the BJP, known for its communal overtones, and the Congress rule marked by rampant corruption and misgovernance.