Encompassing a lush valley that comprises the districts of Imphal, radiating circles of hills form the parliamentary constituency of Outer Manipur. Reserved as a Scheduled Tribe seat, Outer Manipur spans 28 Assembly constituencies, of which only eight fall in the Meitei-dominated valley area.
The Lok Sabha constituency usually sees keenly contested elections between candidates of two of the dominant tribes in Manipur — the Nagas and the Kukis. But this year, with a weak Congress in the opposition and the Naga People’s Front (NPF) gaining ground, the battle lines are drawn between the traditional rivals and warring armies of Kuki insurgents groups and the NSCN (IM).
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While many of the 33 Kuki insurgent groups — that have been under suspension of operation (SOO) agreements with the Indian government — have decided to throw their weight behind BJP candidate Benjamin Mate, the NSCN-IM, that has been under a ceasefire agreement for nearly two decades now, will as always back the Naga candidate. The NPF has fielded a Naga candidate, Dr Lorho S Prize.
In a letter written to BJP president Amit Shah in February, the Kuki National Organisation (KNO), an umbrella body of 17 Kuki insurgent groups, said, “The KNO would like to support the candidacy of Benjamin Mate, vice-president BJP unit…” ZRO (a Zomi armed group) also declared its support for Mate.
“In Outer Manipur, the election is always a contest between the Kukis and Nagas. When MPCC chief T N Haokip was removed ahead of the elections, we realised the Congress may be fielding a Naga candidate,” KNO spokesperson Dr Seilin Haoip told The Indian Express. “The UPA kept stringing us along. When the BJP came to power in 2014, within two years they began dialogue with us. As a reciprocal gesture, we have aligned with the BJP,” he added.
BJP election in-charge for Manipur Nalin Kohli, however, denied that their choice of candidate was influenced by Kuki armed groups. “Mate was always a frontrunner,” he said, adding that the fight in the hill districts is now between the BJP and the NPF.
The Congress candidate for Outer Manipur, K James, a hastily selected nominee, was last month accused of defaulting on loans worth Rs 100 crore by Punjab National Bank. While the EC did not take action against James, Naga civil organisations said his “image has been tarnished”. A political analyst in Churachandpur, the heart of Kuki-Zomi tribes in Manipur, said that the Kuki and Zomi votes are split and will not go to the BJP in as consolidated a manner that it went to the Congress earlier.