Manipur faces a complex election this year where the Congress has to strive hard to remain significant. No one is asking who will win. Most say the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has the advantage since it is in power in the state and the Centre.
The more pertinent question is how much the BJP can limit the anti-incumbency votes against its government, which it had formed for the first time in the state in 2017. In northeastern states, like Manipur, the electorate usually votes for the party in the Assembly polls that is in power at the Centre.
Ticket seekers have started knocking on the doors of party bosses. A BJP ticket is on top of the wish list. The second is the National People's Party (NPP), a BJP ally in Meghalaya, with the Congress the third choice. "The Congress has to work harder," concedes a Congress leader. The Congress ruled the state for a long time, but party loyalties are weak in Manipur, and it's common for leaders and legislators to switch political allegiance and affiliation.
In the 2017 Assembly polls, the Congress won as many as 28 seats in the 60-member legislature. However, it failed to form the government due to the machinations of the BJP, which could win only 21 seats. The NPP and Naga People's Front (NPF) backed the BJP to form the government. Now in 2022, the BJP is comfortable with 30 seats in the current assembly and the Congress strength is reduced to 20 from 28 MLAs.
The Congress stands marginalised in some of the other northeastern states too. The Congress has been out of power for two decades in neighbouring Nagaland. It is the principal opposition force, but it could not field candidates in all the 60 segments in the 2018 Assembly polls in that state.
In Meghalaya, Garo leader Mukul Sangma and his fellow travellers recently quit the Congress to join the Trinamool Congress. In Assam, the Congress is still a force but failed to stop the BJP from returning to power in the 2021 Assembly polls. In Tripura, the Congress is now a 'zero MLA' party.
But in Manipur, the Congress continues to have hope under the leadership of former chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh, who remains popular and can put up a strong fight against the ruling BJP. He was the chief minister from 2002 to 2017, winning three successive elections. But some think that at 73, he is past his prime.
Apart from the fact that voters in Manipur prefer a party ruling at the Centre, N Biren Singh, the current chief minister of the state, a former Congressman who joined the BJP in 2016, has earned the reputation of being accessible.
The Meitei factor
The 'Meitei interest' will play a pivotal role in Manipur polls. In October 2019, Biren Singh had approached Union Home Minister Amit Shah and convinced him to 'delay' the final announcement on the Naga Peace Agreement.
The Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (IM), with its organisational presence among the Tangkhul Nagas tribe, has pockets of influence in Manipur. Hence, the Meitei leaders are often cautious about the Centre's 'give it all' approach towards that outfit.
Talks are in the final stage, they say, since the last two years. But for Meiteis in Manipur, there can be no compromise on the state boundary. The BJP central leadership ostensibly has agreed to be with Meiteis on this issue.
In 2010, the then union home minister P Chidambaram had reportedly agreed to allow Naga rebel leader Thuingaleng Muivah to visit his native village, Somdal, in Manipur. Accordingly, Ibobi Singh was asked to handle the matter cautiously, specifically the 'Meitei sentiment' as the community views the Naga movement as a significant move to alter the state's geography.
In Delhi, Ibobi Singh agreed and said he would facilitate Muivah's visit. But back in Manipur, Ibobi Singh played the Meitei card to the hilt and sabotaged Muivah's visit to his native village in the Ukhrul district, which of course, strengthened his grip on the state politics.
Probably some Congress leaders are yet to forget and forgive Ibobi Singh for this. Nevertheless, much depends for the Congress on the Ibobi Singh factor in the forthcoming polls. It remains to be seen whether the Congress high command will oblige him by giving tickets to Ibobi Singh's chosen leaders. The final working relations between Ibobi Singh and Jairam Ramesh, the Congress in-charge of Manipur elections, would settle things.
Advantage N Biren Singh
On the other hand, locals say Biren Singh and the BJP are ahead in their perception. "The prime minister's concept of "double engine government" may not appeal to all in Manipur. But to be in power both in Imphal and in New Delhi gives enough mechanism to garner votes to the BJP. It also used to be the Congress party's advantage. Now that pattern is definitely at play, and it will help our party," says SK Sema, a BJP leader from Manipur's Naga areas.
In the chief minister's constituency, Heingang, a 50-year old woman says, "The BJP's move to appoint a woman state unit president in Sharda Devi would be another advantage in its favour". Of course, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's charisma will also play.
While rival parties will have to remain content with local candidates and low profile campaigners, the BJP has on its hands a problem of plenty and possible dissent after the final ticket distribution. The BJP won 21 seats in 2017 but has set a target of 40 in this election and will be fielding candidates in all 60 seats, which has strained its ties with the NPP of Conrad Sangma, the chief minister of Meghalaya.
Another regional party, the NPF, draws strength among the Naga population in the hilly region of the state and had won four seats five years back. It is now eyeing at least 8 to 10.
Manipur' politics has another peculiarity. Local MLAs' performance and who rules Delhi are election issues. Still, when voters queue up to press the button on the election day, contentious issues, like the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA), seldom become a game-changer.
(Nirendra Dev is a journalist based in New Delhi)
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.
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