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Manipur Election 2017: BJP's secrecy on Naga framework keeps Meities away, gives Congress fighting chance

After a sweeping victory in Assam last year, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had set its sights on Manipur, the last stronghold of the Congress in the north-east. With the state Assembly election just a few days away (Manipur goes to polls on 4 and 8 March in two phases), the state where Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh had ruled for three successive terms since 2002, seems ripe for the picking.

More so as the Meities living in the valley are mostly Hindus, and with a strong Hindutva wave sweeping the country since 2014, one may think that the BJP would be a natural choice. But as of now, it is not an advantage-BJP in Manipur. In fact, the Indian National Congress is slightly ahead, but whether the numbers are enough to form a government is unclear. A hung assembly is not being ruled out by analysts in Imphal.

Manipuris protest against Economic blockade

Manipuris protest against Economic blockade

As of now, both the Congress and the BJP are publicly claiming that they are confident of forming the next government. Local factors, however, matter a great deal in the state. Besides, despite some defections from the Congress, the BJP does not have a solid chief ministerial face.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is popular and does attract crowds, but people know that he is a not the man they can turn to in a local situation. In the 60-member Assembly, the BJP has just two seats. Both won in by-polls in 2015. The party also can't boast of a solid organisation in Manipur.

The Greater Nagaland factor

The Hindu Meiteis see the BJP as backing the Christian tribes living in the sparsely populated hill areas of the state. This is because of the Naga People’s Front (NPF) ruling Nagaland is aligned to the BJP. The hills of Manipur are inhabited largely by Nagas, Kukis and Zomias as well as many smaller groups. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland — Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), which has long been demanding the amalgamation of Naga-dominated areas in the region with Nagaland to create a composite homeland for the Nagas, has a strong presence in the Tangkhul areas of Manipur. This has been a key issue in the talks held between the Centre and the NSCN-IM. The least that the NSCN-IM demands giving up on an independent Naga nation, is the creation of a Greater Nagaland. The Naga-inhabited hill areas of Manipur are the key to this solution. Meitei’s are wary of the BJP giving in to the NSCN-IM demands.

The hush-hush framework agreement that was signed by the Union government with the NSCN-IM on 3 August 2015, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s blessings, has also led to the speculation of Manipuri territory going to Nagaland. The contents of the pact have not been made public. And naturally, the Congress is making full use of it in the election. Though various BJP bigwigs, including home minister Rajnath Singh, Prakash Javadekar and others have tried to reassure Meitei’s that Manipur will not be divided, there is deep suspicion on this score.

"It is advantage Congress in Manipur, mainly because the BJP does not have an answer to why this agreement is under wraps," said analyst Babloo Loitongbam. "The people do not want Manipur to be bifurcated," he added.

Economic blockade in Manipur
Ahead of the polls in December last year, Ibobi decided to fulfil a long-held aspiration of locals for increasing the number of districts in Manipur from nine to sixteen. Singh had said that it was done to improve the administration of far-flung areas of the state. The Nagas living in Manipur, however, are furious.

Led by the United Naga Council (UNC), they have blamed Ibobi and his Congress party of dividing Naga contiguous areas. Though this affects just one district, the local NPF with the blessings of both the NSCN-IM, the UNC has organised a blockade along the national highways 2 and 53. Manipur, like many of the North Eastern states, is land-locked and the trucks are the mainstay for suppliers. As the national highway runs through Naga-dominated areas, the valley can be easily cut off. Economic blockade has been used frequently by the Nagas, thus hardening the Meitei's attitude in the valley towards the Nagas.

Emergence of new players in Manipur

The main contest in Manipur is between the Congress and the BJP. But the NPF is also contesting in 15-seats in the hills. Human Rights activist Irom Sharmila, who was on hunger strike for over a decade for the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Afspa) from Manipur, is also in the fray. Though she ploughs a lonely trial with little money or organisation, her Peoples Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRAJA), has also fielded five candidates. She could have made a difference, if people did not turn against her when she decided to end her hunger strike in 2016.

Modi, in an attempt to woo Meitei votes, has said in an election speech that if the BJP is voted to power, the crippling blockade of the valley will be lifted immediately. This has led to jibes from Ibobi that the BJP along with its Naga allies has organised the economic blockade. The Hindu Meitei’s would have as a rule opted for a Hindu nationalist party like the BJP. But suspicion of the BJPs connections with the Nagas and fear of fragmentation of Manipur is giving Congress a fighting chance.

There are 40 seats in the valley and 20 in the hills. The Nagas are likely to vote against the Congress but whether they go with the BJP or the NPF is difficult to predict. The BJP’s greatest advantage is that it is the ruling party at the Centre. Most North Eastern states prefer to align with the party in New Delhi. The Congress, meanwhile, is showing little chance of a resurgence in New Delhi. These factors may weigh in with the voters. But, if Ibobi wins another term, he will be breaking a record of sorts as a four-time chief minister.

Updated Date: Mar 02, 2017 17:43 PM

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