BJP has an edge in Manipur

Although the Congress and BJP have been the main contenders for power in Manipur, the way the smaller parties have gained influence suggests that they will play a kingmaker’s role. Okram Ibobi Singh will lose the chief minister’s post as the BJP is likely to form an alliance with (or get support from) smaller parties for the formation of the next government.

The eleventh General Elections to the 60-member Assembly were held in two phases, on 4 and 8 March, respectively, registered over 85% voter turnout. The poll exercise was largely peaceful, except for few violent incidents.

Altogether, 266 candidates belonging to 17 political parties and independents contested for the 60 seats, of which 19 were reserved for the scheduled tribes. As the results indicate, the Congress has emerged as the single largest party with 27 seats, followed by the BJP (21), NPF (4), NPP (4), LJP (1), AITC (1), and independents (2).  Elections were held against the backdrop of the prolonged ban (popularly called the economic blockade) on the movement of goods-laden vehicles along the national highways imposed by the United Naga Council (UNC) against the creation of seven new districts.

Several BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi campaigned for their candidates. Rahul Gandhi wanted the contents of the framework agreement signed between the central government and the NSCN-IM to be made public and even accused the prime minister of “spreading hate and lies”. He further held that only the Congress could safeguard the territorial integrity of Manipur. On the other hand, the prime minister assured that Manipur’s territorial integrity would be safeguarded. Launching a scathing attack on the Congress government, he maintained that the framework agreement would not compromise the state’s territory. He also slammed the state government for failing to lift the economic blockade and accused Ibobi Singh of instigating the economic blockade to gain political mileage by dividing the communities.

By creating seven new districts, Okram Ibobi Singh tried to send a message that he alone can safeguard the territorial integrity of Manipur. According to him, the new districts were created for administrative convenience which would help bring equal development and growth in the interior areas. The UNC claims that the new districts would bifurcate the ancestral land of the Nagas in Manipur. But Ibobi argued that the creation of new districts does not mean compromising land belonging to anyone, as all the land belongs to the government. The move alienated a major section of the Naga population, although a section of the Nagas did not oppose the creation of new districts. The decision was also not opposed by the majority of the people in the state.

A few days before the polls, the Congress brought back the framework agreement as an important poll issue. The party countered that if there was nothing in it, then why the prime minister was shying away from disclosing the details. On its part, the BJP accused the Congress of “politicising” the economic blockade.

The election results clearly indicate that Okram Ibobi Singh is unlikely to remain as the most powerful politician in the state. At the same time, there is a leadership vacuum in the BJP. If the next government is headed by the BJP, the state is expected to get some relief from the ongoing economic blockade as the NPF is likely to be a junior partner of the former. These elections also assume significance as it will decide the future relevance of the NPF. The party has not been able to control politics in Naga-inhabited areas of the state. It will be interesting to see its future relationships with the BJP.

Noted human rights activist Irom Sharmila Chanu has failed miserably. In fact, she seems to be more popular outside the state than within the state.

Nonetheless, the smaller parties are likely to play an important role in the government formation in which the BJP has an edge over the Congress. But, the problem of Manipur is far from over. The people want economic development to take place rather than ethnic politics.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi)

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