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Manipur Election 2017: Can an ambiguous BJP deny Okram Ibobi Singh a fourth term?

"Whoever wins the election, a radical change is not expected," said Babloo Loitongbam, director of the Human Rights Alert.

For a state that often struggles to get its daily requirement of essential commodities, thanks to the repeated economic blockade imposed by the United Naga Council and other allied bodies, nothing can be more disheartening than this. Manipur has turned into a land of turmoil with a multiplicity of issues like militancy, fake encounters, Armed Forces Special Powers Act and territorial integrity keeping the state restless.

In this northeastern state that votes for its new Assembly in two phases — on 4 and 8 March — the democratic exercise is not just a five-yearly ritual but a kit for survival, a hope that may usher in some semblance of normalcy.

Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh. Image courtesy PIB

Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh. Image courtesy PIB

The state that has now clearly been divided into plains and hills, with Meiteis dominating the former and Nagas calling the shots in the latter, Manipur is increasingly finding it hard to represent itself as a united entity. However, the Congress, which has ruled for over a decade, is hopeful of retaining power.

"The Congress under Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh has ruled the state for 15 years. People are highly satisfied with the development. In fact, a high percentage of people are for the Congress government. It won't be very difficult for the Congress to form the government again in the state," Manipur Congress vice-president Chalton Lien Amo told Firstpost.

The difficulty for the Congress would certainly be in the hill areas, which till recently, consisted of the five districts of Senapati, Tamenglong, Churachandpur, Chandel and Ukhrul. The four districts in the plains are Imphal East, Imphal West, Thoubal and Bishnupur. However, on 9 December the Manipur government created seven more districts, mostly out of the five hill districts triggering a huge furore, particularly among some sections of the Nagas.

"All the five hill districts have been bifurcated; of the four valley districts, Bishenpur and Imphal West have been left alone. The seven new districts are Kangpokpi (a long-standing demand by Kukis for a separate Sadar Hills district with areas of the Naga district Senapati), Tengnoupal (from the predominantly Naga district of Chandel), Pherzawl (earlier in Kuki-dominated Churachandpur), Noney (earlier in Naga-dominated Tamenglong), Jiribam (from Imphal East), Kamjong (from Ukhrul) and Kakching (in the valley, but to which some areas of Chandel have been added)," said a piece in The Indian Express.

"The hill area would be a problem. The BJP and the Naga People's Front are joining hands to create trouble. However, not all Nagas are against us. Even our chief minister is from the Naga community. The decision to create the seven new districts was taken for administrative reasons," said Amo.

Although the BJP did not sound averse to the idea of creating these new districts, the party was clearly fuming at the timing.

"If they are citing administrative reasons, why did they not do it 10 years back? Why did they do it now when they have just three months in the present tenure? They are trying to hoodwink the people," said Manipur BJP president K Bhabananda Singh.

Unlike the Congress, the state BJP chief sounded optimistic and claimed that his party would win over 10 plus seats from the hill constituencies.

Although hidden behind the nomenclature of administrative advantage, there is little doubt that the new districts were speedily created keeping the Assembly polls in mind.

"This was done to break the hegemony of the Nagas who are part of the NSCN — IM (National Socialist Council of Nagaland — Isak-Muivah) front organisation United Naga Council (UNC) and others. However, not all Nagas are angry with the announcement. The Kukis are happy because they got Kangpokpi. Likewise, the Hmar and Tangkhuls in the south would be happy because they would be closer to the administration. This should not affect the outcome of the election much as only around five MLAs would be impacted in a house of 60," said Loitongbam.

What is appalling is that the economic blockade which has affected the state so deeply has turned into a mere political milch cow for major political parties like the Congress and the BJP.

"This economic blockade is a ramification of the electoral politics. The Congress is doing its best to use the whole situation to its advantage and the BJP is doing the same. The Congress government should have called an all-party meet to resolve the situation but it didn't do so while the common man continues to suffer," Loitongbam said.

The Congress leader, however, did not agree that the state government is not doing enough to tackle the crisis as a result of the blockade. "Our government is trying its best. Vehicles carrying essential commodities are provided security to ensure a steady supply. The blockade is strangulating the life of the people," said Amo.

The BJP was, however, fast to claim credit for the partial relief that the state got with the essential supplies moving in.

"Whatever little the economic blockade has eased, is, because of us. The central forces are providing security as the trucks are coming in. It is our initiative. Even the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju came down to Imphal. The centre has been quite proactive to resolve the crisis," Bhabananda said.

What has become evident as the poll knocks the door, Manipur, quite similarly to Assam, has little option to look for apart from BJP and Congress.

"The Left and few other groups were trying to build on a third front. But it won't be a serious factor as far as this poll is concerned as it has not consolidated enough to put up any serious fight," he said.

The upcoming election is expected to be so bipolar that even the new party — People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance — launched by the Iron Lady of Manipur Irom Sharmila is likely to offer a feeble resistance. Sharmila had earlier announced that she would contest from Thoubal, her home constituency and Khurai, represented by Chief Minister Ibobi Singh.

"Sharmila's role is minimal. She jumped in too quickly. Had she done something to fortify the third front we might have seen some fight," Loitongbam said. Congress leader Amo felt that she was "degrading her position" by getting into electoral politics.

Although incumbency has set in after the 15-year-rule by Singh, the BJP which was projecting itself as a strong alternative has faltered in its steps forcing people to do a rethink.

"The incumbency factor is always there. People are tired of the long tenure of Singh. BJP had a good chance but it sounded very ambivalent on the blockade issue and on the territorial integrity issue. (Nagaland has for long demanded a Greater Nagaland with huge chunks of Manipur in it). In Manipuri, we have a saying if you ride on two boats you will tear yourself. BJP is just doing that by its doublespeak," Loitongbam said.

But the BJP denied any double standard.

"Only recently our national president Amit Shah said that not an inch of ground will be compromised. This is what even former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said. We can't go against the people," said Bhabananda in an apparent attempt to salvage the situation.

Even as the state BJP president claimed that his party would form the next government and said it was "fully ready" for the poll ahead, he sought to downplay any infighting.

"We are a family. Everybody is with us and central leadership is quite strict about it. Small crises are there but they can be resolved. It is nothing out of control or something to worry about," Bhabananda said.

However, Loitongbam chose to differ.

"Leadership is a major factor in the state BJP. Everybody wants to be a leader. The in-house chaos is quite significant and the present president is a committed cadre but not a charismatic leader. Ibobi, on the other hand, is quite experienced," he said.

Another issue that is plaguing Manipur is the rampant corruption that has taken a quantum leap owing to large scale recruitments allegedly throwing the rule book to the winds.

"Of late, the government did a lot of recruitments. The state is already cash starved. For the next government, paying salaries would be tough. The Election Commission asked several queries but the government did not respond," said Loitongbam.

The state BJP chief pointed out that "people were buying their jobs" and hoped that as the Model Code of Conduct has been enforced from Wednesday, this would finally stop.

Probably for someone like Loitongbam, a change if not a radical one, would bring some solace if it gives Manipur a better tomorrow.

Updated Date: Jan 05, 2017 07:49 AM

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