The discourse during the run-up to the state Assembly elections in Manipur has confined itself to critical local issues like corruption, the ongoing four-month-long economic blockade by a frontline Naga group, fears on whether a deal with Naga rebels could see the state losing some of its Naga-inhabited territory, development or the lack of it, and, of course, insurgency and law and order. But what is brand new for Manipur’s politics is that two national parties — the Congress and the BJP — are battling it out, the only two parties contesting all the 60 seats. The other major player is the Naga People’s Front (NPF), a BJP ally which is the dominant ruling coalition partner in adjoining Nagaland. The NPF had contested 12 seats in Manipur in 2002 and had won four. This time, the NPF has put up candidates in 15 seats. Adding interest to the contest is Manipur’s “iron lady” and rights activist Irom Sharmila and her party, the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA), which is engaged in a symbolic fight, contesting only three seats. Ms Sharmila, who had ended a 16-year-long fast against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, is pitted against veteran Congress leader and chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh in Thoubal constituency. There are a host of other regional and Left parties in the fray.
The Congress in the state, led by its mascot Ibobi Singh, had a near free run for the past 15 years in a row, having won three elections in the absence of a strong or determined Opposition. This is for the first time in 15 years that the Congress is faced with a real Opposition that is threatening to unseat the party. For the BJP, the Manipur elections are extremely important because if it manages a win, it would add one more north-eastern state in its kitty after the decisive victory in Assam in April last year. Arunachal Pradesh too has a BJP government now, but that has not come about after an electoral verdict. In Nagaland too, the BJP has a presence in the state government by way of the party being a part of the ruling NPF-led coalition. A victory for the BJP in Manipur will help the party establish its claim as a pan-Indian entity that is there to stay, and drive home the message that it is a party that appeals to Indians across the length and breadth of the diverse nation. Similarly, for the Congress, retaining Manipur is vital to rejuvenate the party whose electoral fortunes have not been on the high for long now. It is not surprising, therefore, to see leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, Union home minister Rajnath Singh and other bigwigs campaigning in Manipur, braving security threats from insurgents.
As the BJP geared up its efforts to wrest Manipur, and vested the responsibility on master strategist Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam Cabinet minister and convenor of the BJP-led North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), chief minister Ibobi Singh came up with a masterstroke. In early December last year, the state government created seven new districts, six of which were carved out from the existing hill districts inhabited by Nagas, Kukis and other ethnic groups. The Congress must have done this with two objectives in mind — enlist the support of the tribes people in the new districts as elevating these areas to districts would bring them some development and additional infrastructure, besides jobs, and to possibly alter the district-wise demographic balance. The Nagas got highly agitated by this move. Manipur’s apex Naga body, the United Naga Council (UNC) had already launched an economic blockade on November 1, 2016 after the Manipur government announced plans to grant full-fledged district status to two subdivisions in the hill areas. When the Ibobi government went a step further and created seven new districts, the UNC intensified the blockade that is still on.
The genesis of this lies in the deep divide between the people in the hills and the Imphal Valley dominated by the Meiteis. The valley has 40 Assembly seats although it comprises only 11 per cent of Manipur’s total geographical area. The hills with an area of 89 per cent have only 20 seats. Therefore, a section of Nagas in both Nagaland and Manipur has been hoping to break away from Manipur and perhaps merge with adjoining Nagaland. Politics, not surprisingly, has come into play with the Congress and Mr Ibobi Singh himself saying Manipur could be dismembered if the BJP comes to power because the NDA government at the Centre, he alleges, has entered into a secret pact with the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM). That is the reason why Rahul Gandhi too demanded in his Manipur campaign tour that New Delhi should make the August 2015 “framework agreement” with the NSCN(I-M) public. This forced Mr Modi to clarify in Imphal that Manipur’s territorial integrity is under no threat and is not linked to a possible deal with the NSCN(I-M).
Aside from intricate issues as this, the Congress is facing a strong anti-incumbency wave. Charges of nepotism and favouritism by the Ibobi Singh government in matters of recruitment to state government jobs are flying thick and fast. Questions are also being raised on the degree of development that the Congress could usher in during the past decade and a half. Most importantly, the issue of fake encounter deaths (a case is pending at the Supreme Court on 1,528 such deaths in Manipur during Congress rule) will also weigh heavily on the mind of voters. The Congress has certainly conceded some ground to the BJP over all these, but the fact also remains that the BJP’s organisational base in Manipur is not really strong so far. Moreover, the party has been forced to bear in mind that several of its candidates have been senior leaders in the Manipur Congress until recently. The BJP’s only claim to success in the state in recent times was when it won 12 of the 30-odd seats in the Imphal municipal body. The Modi magic will be subject to scrutiny on Saturday when 38 seats go to the polls in the first phase. The second and last phase of voting on March 8 will determine whether the lotus blooms in Manipur or whether Mr Ibobi Singh is going to be fourth time lucky.