Sending clear signals of anti-incumbency against the Okram Ibobi Singh-led Congress government in Manipur, the Bharatiya Janata Party on Tuesday emerged as a strong contender of the Imphal Municipal Council (IMC). In the result declared so far of the election held on 2 June, the saffron party has bagged 5 seats, which is equal to the number of wards won by the ruling Congress party.
It is seen as a big gain for the saffron party. In the last IMC election, BJP barely managed to win one seat, whereas Congress won 14 out of total 27 number of wards spread across two districts namely Imphal East and Imphal West.
A source in the Deputy Commissioner’s office said that counting of votes are likely to continue till Wednesday.
The ambience in the state BJP office was buoyant.
“It is a good sign for us. Especially at a time when the state is heading towards assembly election to be held early next year,” says Bikram Singh, a party worker.
For beginners, Manipur is the next Congress bastion after Assam the BJP has tacitly declared to dismantle. Signs of anti-incumbency against the Congress government which has been ruling the state for the last 14 years, showed during the election itself. More than 80 percent voters turned out despite unrest going on the Imphal valley till the previous day.
Aggressive movement on demand of implementing Inner Line Permit system in Manipur has kept the police on it’s tows for the last one month.
Results declared so far indicate BJP’s growing grip over the plains. Both the districts are on the plains of the state. But voices in the plains often do not echo in the hills of Manipur.
“Politics in the hills differ from that of plains,” admits Ksh Bhabananda Singh, who has recently been selected as the party’s state president.
He also adds that the party has yet to figure out as to how to connect to the masses of the hills, to have a coveted result in the forth coming assembly election.
The political terrain
“The political situation in Manipur somewhat resembles Assam. Like Assam having large Assamese Hindu population we have a sizeable Meitei population who are also mostly Hindus,” the state president says.
“Moreover, there is growing mistrust between the hills and plains,” he explains.
He also says that Nagas and Kukis who dwell in the hills are mostly Christians and Meiteis and those living in the plains are mostly Hindus.
But JNU professor Oinam Bhagat, who is a known figure in Manipur, says that political terrain in Manipur far more complex than it appears.
“Meiteis cannot be bundled into a singular identity. Among the Meiteis there are also Christians and Sanamahis who also do not identify themselves as Hindus,” he adds.
North East Student Organisation Secretary General, Sinam Prakash Singh, says that there are also issues related to civil society demands to implement Inner line Permit System and to recognise Meiteis as scheduled tribes.
A brief history of strife
“Some hill dwellers feel neglected and complain Meiteis who live in the plains absorb most of the development funds,” says the Manipur BJP president.
“On the other hand some Meiteis feel their cultural identity and economy being threatened because of influx of population to the plains of Manipur from both hills and other parts of India,” he adds.
The land in the plains of Manipur is not reserved by any law. The law permits any Indian citizen to own land here. On the other hand the land in the hills is reserved only for the tribals residing there.
“There are also other reasons for the growing mistrust,” says a journalist who did not wish to be named.
“In 2001, Government of India extended its ceasefire agreement with the Naga militant outfit NSCN (IM), withdrawing the clause of ‘territorial limit’ of its operation. This irated the Meiteis,” he explains.
The agreement was seen as an official recognition of the demand of constituting greater Nagaland layed down by the outfit. Demanded Greater Nagaland encompassed a major part of Manipur also.
“Violent protests rose in the Meitei dominated valley of Manipur. Many lost their lives,” recollects Sinam Prakash Singh of NESO.
These protests led the Government of India to revert to its original ground rule of ceasefire agreement which did not allow the outfit to move ‘without territorial limits’.
Greater Nagaland also included large areas of Kuki inhabitance. The ceasefire agreement led to fresh violence among Nagas and Kukis.
Brigadier Sushil Sarma who is posted as the DIGP of CRPF in North East says in one of his articles, that signing of the Naga Peace Accord in recent times has allayed fears in Manipur, Arunachal and Assam.
But political parties continue to play on differences. Manipur Congress spokesperson Biren Singh says that very little is known about what is written in the Naga Peace accord.
“If it contains anything against the interest of the larger section of the society, than it will enhance mistrust further,” he points out.
The hills saw violent protests fearing impingement of the interests of the tribals, when the Manipur Assembly accepted three bills on 31 August last year to provide with Inner Line Permit System, a demand layed down by Meiteis.
Differences are not only between hills and plains. There are also differences among the Meiteis dwelling in the Manipur valley.
“Twenteith century Manipur saw revival of traditional Manipuri religion among the Meiteis. It was known as Sanamahi movement and was primarily anti Hindu. Sanamahis are still a strong voice among the Meiteis,” says Professor Oinam Bhagat.
The election strategy
“BJP has opted for a two pronged strategy to win Meitei votes in Manipur. One is overt and the other is covert,” says Professor Bhagat who keeps tab of political happenings in Manipur.
“In an overt attempt to win over votes of Meitei Hindus it has been using the bait of Inner Line Permit Sytem,” he adds.
The Congress which has 28 MLAs from the plains was early to spot this opportunity.
“Our government has already passed three bills last year in the assembly which will protect the political and economic rights of the Manipuris. The bills have been sent for the President of India’s assent, but they have not been returned yet,” says Congress spokesperson N Biren Singh.
He also adds that the said bills neither impinge upon the rights of the tribals nor the people who have already settled in Manipur. Rather they aim at restricting further influx of people to the state by making it difficult to purchase land here.
BJP keen on garnering Meitei votes is actively supporting the Inner Line Permit System cause. Hinting that the Central Government may pass another legislation to protect the economic and political rights of Manipur, if the said three bills fail to get President’s assent Ksh Bhabananda Singh the state president of BJP says “Our party leaders have assured me that an Act in the lines of Inner Line Permit System will be brought into force before Assembly Election.”
“In it’s covert attempt to attract Sanamahi voters BJP has given the bait to recognize them as scheduled tribes. While doing this the party has used neither any of it’s agencies nor of RSS’s, but with agencies those have no direct links with it,” says Professor Bhagat.
IMC result declared so far suggest that strategies to win Meitei votes have started showing results.
Limiting the flow of central government funds by central government to Manipur is also seen as another strategy opted by the saffron party.
“BJP government in Delhi has limited development funds to Manipur. On account of which dissidence grew in Manipur Congress,” says Congress spokesperson N Biren Singh. Although he feels that Manipur Congress may not have to face the crisis that it’s counterpart in Assam did, where Himanta Biswa Sarma, a vatern Congress leader alongwith a bunch of dissident MLAs defected to BJP.
He also says that his party leadership has taken timely step to mitigate dissidence by accommodating disgruntled MLA’s in the state cabinet.
But a source in the Congress tipped that BJP has continued trying to woo away a good number of it’s MLAs. The saffron party plans to fill up its dearth of powerful candidates to field in various constituencies, the source says.
Last year two of the defecting MLAs of Trinamool Congress Party won bypoll as BJP candidates. Now the party has two MLAs in the 60-member state assembly of Manipur.
What seems to perturb the saffron party leadership are the hills of the state which it is still clueless about how to make inroads there.
Analysts say that alliance with Naga Peoples Front, which has strong holds in certain hill constituencies might have helped BJP. But NPF promote the idea of Greater Nagaland. Alliance with it may risk BJP’s targeted Meitei Hindu voters in plains.
“Though NPF is an ally of NDA we have to discuss with our leaders about how much beneficial it will be for us to have an alliance with them here,” Bhabananda Singh the state president of Manipur BJP raises doubt.
He also says that state BJP might not ally with North East Democratic Alliance, formed by party President Amit Shah just after the result of Assam Assembly Election was declared. For it also has NPF as it’s ally.
In the last assembly election held in 2012, Congress won 14 of the 19 assembly constituencies in the hills and 28 out of 41 in the plains.
“I am not sure how BJP is going to benefit by only focusing on the constituencies in the plains,” says Professor Bhagat.
Until and unless BJP formulates a strategy to connect to the voters in the hills, its strategies to win over Manipur may prove ineffective, despite other factors lined in its favour.