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The invisible election

Today Manipur will vote in the second phase of assembly polls. What are the issues? What makes this poll different from those in the past?

Written by A. Bimol Akoijam |
February 14, 2007 12:19:12 am

Unlike the elections in Punjab, Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh, the electoral exercise in Manipur exists as a non-event for the ‘national’ media and consciousness. The 9th assembly election in Manipur is no exception. However, for the people of the ‘little paradise’ (as the state is also called), this election is no ordinary one. It may well mark the beginning of a new political reality.

If the elections held in 1948 in Manipur were a significant marker in its history — marking the end of the absolute monarchy in the state by constituting the first ever legislative assembly in South Asia through an election based on the principle of universal adult franchise — the present election signals some new trajectories for this tiny state.

There are two issues that signal a change. First, the widening ‘ethnic’ division, particularly between the people in the valley and hills, enters the election arena. Votaries of the demand for a ‘unified Naga homeland’, which includes the five hill districts of Manipur into ‘Greater Nagaland’ or Nagalim, call for ensuring “the return of responsible candidates… who will represent the Naga aspirations”. In fact, the United Naga Council (UNC), while stating that “some of the most strident critics who function against the aspiration of the Nagas are themselves Naga representatives (MLAs/ministers) in the Manipur Legislative Assembly”, has called upon the ‘Nagas of Manipur’ to elect the independent candidates ‘sponsored’ by it. Just a few days before the election, these ‘independent candidates’ formed an alliance called the United Naga Democratic Front (UNDF).

This move has been received with reservations in some quarters in these hill districts, such as the Congress Committee Nungba Block, Tamenglong District and Langol Village Authority. Besides, the other non-Naga communities in the hills are understandably not likely to accept such a move. Given that a national political party like the Congress is contesting all the seats in the state and there are others in the fray, though some have ‘withdrawn’ their candidature, these developments underscore the split in the politics in the hills of Manipur. However, the split is more palpable and significant in terms of the divide between the valley and hills.

In the valley, the issue of the ‘territorial integrity of Manipur’ becomes the other side of the issue of ‘Naga integration’ or ‘unified Naga homeland’ in the hills. This was the issue that almost brought the entire state machinery to a standstill in 2001. Thus, understandably, major national political parties have committed to the protection of the ‘territorial integrity’ of the state in their election manifestos. However, the effort to capitalise on the issue by the Manipur Peoples Party (MPP) — a regional party which seems to be enjoying a new resurgence with many political heavyweights joining it, notably former Chief Minister R.K. Dorendro and former Lok Sabha member Th. Chaoba — is a significant development. Observers point out that if the “Naga constituencies are seen as swinging the UNC way, it is very likely to have an equal and opposite reaction in non-Naga constituencies, particularly amongst the Meiteis in the valley”. Such an opposite swing may benefit the MPP, a party that, unlike in the past, has become primarily a valley-based party.

Two, the notorious Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has become an election issue, particularly in the valley. In the aftermath of the custodial killing of a young Manipuri woman, and subsequent agitation (including self-immolation and the disrobing by elderly women in the heart of Imphal), it has gripped the state. In an election rally, Congress President Sonia Gandhi said that the Centre is studying the Reddy Committee Report which has reportedly recommended scrapping the Act. Most parties, except the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, have included the issue in their manifesto. Beyond the election, too, the AFPSA is likely to haunt the 9th Legislative Assembly.

In this election, therefore, questions of the geo-political identity of Manipur and the dominant paradigm of governance, namely the security perspective, have been brought into focus through the issues of ‘Naga homeland’/ ‘territorial integrity’ and the controversy over the AFSPA. Both have a crucial bearing on the state’s future. But the basic questions of corruption, infrastructure and underdevelopment could not climb onto the political stage.

The writer is a social and political psychologist at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi

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