Will Manipur halt BJP’s forward march in the north-east?

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The north-eastern state of Manipur would go to polls on 4 and 8 March. Will Manipur also go to the BJP after its spectacular victory in Assam last year and coup-d’etat by the party against the Congress government in Arunachal Pradesh?

On the face of it, the odds could not be higher. The ruling Congress party holds over 70% of the 60 seats in the assembly. The incumbent chief minister, Okram Ibobi Singh, has ruled uninterrupted for 15 years. Since 1963, Manipur has had 11 chief ministers, five of whom have been from the Congress. The Congress’s vote share in the 2012 assembly elections was the highest since 1984.

In fact, even during the Modi wave of 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress managed to improve its vote share in thirty three assembly constituencies in the state.

What is the basis of the BJP even being in the fray then? The BJP has made some advances in the state after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The party won its first MLAs in by-elections held in 2015 after two defected MLAs from Trinamool Congress (TMC) were re-elected on BJP tickets. The TMC, which was the main opposition party in the state with seven MLAs after the 2012 elections, has no representative in the assembly currently due to death and defection related issues.

What is even more important is the fact that Manipur has displayed an inclination towards voting for the party which is running the Central government historically. A look at vote shares in all elections held in the state since 1984 shows that, the BJP could only become a relevant force in the state after it managed to form the NDA government with full majority in 1999. Even in 2004 and 2014, when incumbent NDA and UPA governments were rejected by the electorate elsewhere in the country, Manipur chose to vote for the party ruling at the Centre.

Necessity, rather than ideology might be the reason behind this voting behaviour. Like other north-eastern states Manipur is heavily dependent on central funds, which account for more than 90% of its total revenue receipts.

What does the situation on the ground suggest?

The BJP is banking on the support of Naga People’s Front (NPF), which is in power in Nagaland and a constituent of BJP’s umbrella coalition North East Democratic Alliance, to bring votes from Naga people in Manipur’s hill districts.

However, recent developments have cast a shadow on these plans. Manipur’s politics is fractured around the dynamics of Meitei-Naga-Kuki relations. The Nagas have for long alleged that the government in Imphal is biased towards the Meiteis. Their apex body, United Naga Council (UNC), blocked the two national highways leading to Manipur in November 2016 in protest against the government’s proposal to create new districts.

In December, Ibobi Singh announced the creation of seven new districts, taking the total number of districts in the state to 16. The Nagas, who claim the hill territories as their ancestral land, have protested the formation of Jiribam and Kangpokpi districts. They fear that the creation of these non-Naga dominated districts will reduce their territorial control.

While the decision has alienated the Nagas, Ibobi Singh’s move has boosted support among the Meiteis and Kukis, as the latter had demanded the creation of Kangpokpi district.

The BJP, on the other hand, began peace talks with the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), whose stated goal is to carve out a Greater Nagalim (which includes contiguous territory from Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh), in 2015. The lack of transparency regarding the talks has fuelled distrust of the BJP. Meitei-dominated valley districts comprise 40 out of the 60 assembly seats.

Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of the Imphal Free Press, points out that the BJP cannot come to power simply via Naga support as the latter control only 11-12 seats. The BJP is also battling infighting. “The Congress has a historically strong presence in Manipur, unlike the BJP or RSS. The BJP also lacks charismatic leaders and has not yet announced a chief ministerial candidate. The BJP will have an advantage only in the case of a hung assembly, in which case it can garner support from smaller parties,” he said.