The battlelines for the Manipur elections, polling for which is due on March 4 and 8, are distinct now. As expected, it will be a fight between the ruling Congress and challenger BJP. There are a number of smaller parties, but they have either gravitated towards these two poles or are keeping equidistance from them in the hope that they can be the powerbrokers in the not-so-impossible scenario of a hung assembly. The Congress will be entering the arena with the albatross of fatigue that incumbency brings — the party has been in power for three terms under Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh. The other scar the party will have to carry into the arena is corruption. The charge that in the 15 years of its rule corruption has become institutionalised has come to stick.
What can, however, save the Congress is the public cynicism that the challenger, the BJP, would have done no better. This is largely so because most of the leaders the BJP is projecting as its generals are former Congressmen, some of them former ministers in the Ibobi government, who left the party because they could not have the chief minister re-accommodate them after they were dropped in the last of the three Congress terms. The truth is, the BJP has never had a strong enough base in the state. In the last three assembly elections, the party won no seats. This time, the party lapped up two constituencies which became vacant after the disqualification of two defecting Trinamool Congress MLAs. Both the seats were won in the mid-term by-election in 2015 by the disqualified MLAs after they changed loyalties and joined the BJP which was again spreading its wings in the state, basking in the reflected glory of the BJP government at the Centre. One of them has since left the BJP to join the Congress, leaving the BJP with just one seat in the current assembly.
The rise and fall of political parties in small and dependent Northeastern states is greatly influenced by the change of governments at the Centre. The BJP thus became visible in the 1995 assembly election, winning a single seat, corresponding with the rise of the BJP at the Centre. In the next assembly election in 2000, the BJP returned six seats, four in the valley and two in the hills, and the party was briefly part of the coalition government led by the Samata Party. After this coalition government fell in 2001 amid unprecedented public outrage in the four valley districts following the central BJP government’s decision to extend the NSCN(IM) ceasefire without territorial limits, instilling fear that the government was conceding to the demand for Greater Nagaland, the BJP’s presence in the state was virtually obliterated. In the next three assembly elections, the party drew a blank.
The state BJP this time virtually materialised out of thin air in the wake of the party sweeping into power at the Centre, and has been growing by leaps and bounds ever since. However, as expected of such growth, the party’s superstructure has far outgrown its base. Its mid and top echelon leaderships have been expanding at blinding speed, with the continuous absorption of disgruntled politicians from other parties, in particular the ruling Congress. The question now is, would the energy of this “hormone-induced” growth at the top successfully percolate to the base to trigger the growth of roots as well.
There are, however, other more immediate issues which will determine the way people vote — the economic blockade by the United Naga Council (UNC), now 108 days old, is one of these. The blockade began on November 1, anticipating that the state government was about to create two districts — Kuki-dominated Sadar out of Senapati district, and Jiribam out of Imphal East district. The UNC considers Senapati a part of the Naga ancestral homeland, therefore the objection. One and a half months into the blockade, the government decided to disregard the UNC’s caution and created not two but seven districts by splitting seven existing districts, hardening the UNC’s stance. The UNC considers four of the split districts as Naga territory.
The UNC being an organisation which has been campaigning for the separation of Naga inhabited districts from Manipur, as does the militant organisation, the NSCN(IM), the tough stance taken by the government met with approval amongst the non-Naga population of the state, in particular the Meiteis in the valley, making observers speculate that the Congress government may have been driven to do this out of electoral considerations. While this reading would have held in the early days of the blockade, the public attitude is beginning to shift now and the popular perception is that the government lacks the spine to clear the blockade.
It also remains to be seen if all in the hills are unhappy with the districts’ creation. For, except the Sadar hills, the other districts are far from divided demographically. In all the cases, the assembly as well as parliamentary constituencies have been left untouched. Constituencies which fall within the new districts could very well end up voting Congress. The Congress has another issue which may dampen its prospects in the southern hill districts. A little over a year ago, the assembly passed three bills seeking to regulate immigration into the state. These bills were met with violent protests in Churachandpur town, and nine people were killed in firing by state police and Assam Rifles. Bodies of eight of the victims are still lying, not yet buried, in the Churachandpur district hospital mortuary, with protestors demanding severance of the hills from the valley.
Of the 60 seats in the Manipur assembly, 40 are in the valley, of these one is reserved for the Scheduled Castes, and 39 are general seats. Twenty seats are in the hills, and all except the Kangpokpi seats are reserved for the Scheduled Tribes, the latter having been de-reserved to accommodate its sizeable Nepali population. Irom Sharmila’s party, the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance, could have been an alternative, but the five-month-old party has not been able to mobilise resources and support, and is setting up only five candidates. Under the circumstances, voting for the party could virtually be a NOTA vote, inhibiting even those who love her and her party.