The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) electoral success in the Hindi heartland has overshadowed its unprecedented performance in Manipur. The discussion regarding Manipur has mostly focused on how a nimble BJP snatched another state from an ageing Congress, but the background of the BJP’s emergence in Manipur and the challenges facing the new government need closer scrutiny.
The Sangh Parivar’s electoral forays into the state go back to 1972 when the Bharatiya Jan Sangh’s sole candidate forfeited his deposit. Most BJP candidates lost their deposits in 1984 and 1990 while the party won one seat in 1995. It won six seats, including an SC and an ST seat, and stood second on nine in 2000.
The June 2001 protests against a possible extension of the ceasefire with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland/ Isak-Muivah faction (NSCN-IM) with Manipur dented the BJP’s support base in the Imphal Valley. The party won only four seats in 2002, including two ST seats and stood second in four others. In 2007 and 2012, most BJP candidates lost their deposits.
The BJP began to recover lost ground in late 2015 when it performed well in the bye-elections. It also performed well in the 2016 local body elections. In the 2017 assembly election, the BJP emerged as the single largest party by vote share (36.3%). It won 21 out of 60 seats, was the runner-up in 30 seats (including one lost by merely 19 votes and three others lost by a few hundred votes), and stood third in the rest.
It won seats in all the four regions – Meitei-dominated Imphal Valley, Naga-dominated hills, Kuki-dominated hills, and mixed population hill districts. It won all three types of seats (General, SC, and ST) and its legislators include a woman.
The diversity and number of seats won by the BJP and its massive vote share cannot be explained by the general tendency among smaller states, which depend upon federal funding, and hence tilt toward the party in power at the Centre. The BJP’s performance this time far exceeds its achievement under former prime minister A B Vajpayee.
Also, Manipur is unlike Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, where the BJP has grown gradually over the years and has benefited from communal polarisation as well as the longstanding presence of the Sangh Parivar.
More importantly, the party performed well despite the cynical attempt of the Ibobi Singh-led Congress to polarise Manipur along hills-plains and Meitei/ Kuki-Naga divides. The Congress government flouted constitutional and moral obligations while introducing controversial legislation ostensibly to regulate the influx of “outsiders” and dividing the hill districts to create seven new districts.
Manipuris have genuine concerns about being swamped by immigrants and the administrative reorganisation of districts was long overdue. However, the manner in which the Congress government hastily addressed these issues ahead of the elections deepened communal divisions.
The Naga civil society organisations responded by imposing an indefinite blockade of the state’s main lifelines. The Congress government seemed in no hurry to resolve the deadlock and did not show interest in the central government’s attempt to convene a tripartite dialogue.
In fact, it seemed to enjoy the discomfort of the BJP, which it blamed for the crisis as the aforesaid civil society organisations are associated with the NSCN-IM that is in talks with the Union government. However, the talks have been underway for two decades irrespective of which party was in power in New Delhi. The NSCN-IM has been demanding the separation of the Naga-dominated areas from Manipur.
The Congress emerged as the largest party in the assembly election at an enormous social cost. Last year, in a state that is not known for communal polarisation, Christmas celebrations were subdued in Imphal. This is just one glimpse of the damage to the state’s shared culture during the three terms of Ibobi Singh, who embellished his credentials as a champion of the state’s territorial integrity at the cost of communal harmony.
While the recently concluded Manipur elections were a rare instance when the BJP did not try to polarise the electorate, the party was not entirely above board. Instead of presenting a pan-Manipur vision and explaining how it will address contentious issues involving multiple communities, the BJP resorted to micro-management to win over communities and localities. Also, it fielded only one Meitei Muslim candidate (and has paid a price for this).
The BJP did not enter into a pre-poll alliance with the Naga Peoples Front (NPF) though it was clear that the two will join hands after elections. The party wanted to avoid answering questions related to the compromises necessary to resolve the Naga political struggle.
The new government managed to persuade the Nagas to lift the five month-old blockade ahead of the floor test. However, sooner than later it will be confronted by the zero-sum game in which Manipur is trapped due to the NSCN-IM’s pursuit of the “Greater Nagaland” project and Ibobi Singh’s polarising policies.
The internal contradictions of the BJP-led coalition are noteworthy. The NPF, a key coalition partner, wants a review of the political status of the Naga-dominated hills within Manipur. However, several BJP MLAs were part of the Congress government, which denied autonomy to tribes, particularly the Nagas. Even otherwise, it is not clear how the BJP will bring together the communities, which it approached separately during the elections. Unless the BJP finds ways to engage all communities, it cannot address the longstanding development deficit of this insurgency-hit state.
In a similar situation, the BJP’s post-poll alliance has failed to bridge the ethno-geographical divide between Kashmir and Jammu. In Manipur, the party is leading the alliance, which gives it more flexibility to manage the problems.
However, Manipur’s coalition government could come under stress ahead of the 2018 elections in Nagaland where the NPF and the BJP are longstanding alliance partners, but the former is struggling to remain intact.
(The writer teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)