In the recently held assembly elections in Manipur, people have given a fusion of verdict that requires a deeper investigation of what it tends to suggest. The outcome of the election, often corroborated as vote for change, has shown an impression to many,of seeds of lotus being sown in this Kangleipak, the utmost effect of the so-called Modi wave since the BJP’s massive victory in 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The result, that was never predicted at this much height, has shattered the incumbent Congress government from its hope of returning to power again for the fourth spell. With the installation of the third BJP-led state government in northeast India after Assam and Arunachal, the efforts invested by the party to exhibit its permanent base in the state might have fetched a glorifying moment at present. Yet, still unfolded, there are varieties of factors that have done damages to the pompousness of the Congress, and that for the BJP to manage its first crown in Manipur. Politics is an intense game in which winning can sometimes be upside down in another form.
Of the 57 incumbent MLAs who contested in this election, 30 came back with victory in their respective constituencies. Out of this, the Congress has managed a dominant figure with 24 seats, BJP at 4 and one each for LJP and NPF. For BJP, with the exception to one seat captured in bypoll in 2015-16, all were elected in other parties last time. Besides, only 11 of the 24 candidates comprising of the Congress (21), BJP (2) and NPP (1) who made their attempt to obtain the seat for the third consecutive term in a row, came back while 13 of them including 11 Congress MLAs and one each of the BJP and NPP were voted out of their way to power.
Interestingly, among the 60 elected MLAs, 27 are venturing their political journey for the first time as legislators in the state assembly, standing BJP at the top with 17 of its 21 winning candidates, Congress with 3 of its 28, NPP with 2 of its 4 and one each going to AITC and Independent candidate. This will be somewhat a fresh state legislative assembly in the making with 27 first-timers.
Again, the pattern that people voted in the state’s existing nine districts tells another fusion of electoral moods in which a regional divide could be a clear indication. In two districts of East and West Imphal, the capital city which has 23 of the 40 seats of Manipur valley, BJP holding with 12 seats has sliced down the dominance of the Congress to only 8 seats against its tally of 14 in the 2012 assembly elections. In Thoubal which is the home district of Okram Ibobi, the Congress has marvellously managed 8 seats out of 10 giving away only two seats to BJP. For Bishnupur, it was a divide of vote among Congress with 3 seats, BJP with 2 seats and one for AITC.
The mandateof 20 assembly constituencies in the five hill districts has another political dimension to reveal the nature of its traditional voting behaviour through which the Congress defended its hold only by capturing just 9 seats as compared to 14 in 2012, letting BJP to manage with 6 seats, NPF with 4 and NPP with one seat.
Contaminated with a wide range of serious issues such as AFSPA, Inner Line Permit, Question of Territorial Integrity and Naga Issue, frequent bandhs and economic blockades, insurgency, disruption of law and order, development, corruption, etc., resulting the Congress government at the height of criticism at public domain of its misgovernance, the election was in fact a playground for the public to display its frustration and repentance. Understanding the sentiment of the majority population, BJP’s heavyweights including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and party president Amit Shah have had a hard time in convincing people during their election campaign that the Framework Agreement signed between the Government of India and NSCN-IM on August 3, 2015does not contain anything that challenges the integrity of Manipur and its territorial boundary, beside the commitment to resolve the ongoing economic blockade imposed by the United Naga Council since November 1, 2016 against the announcement of the state government to create seven new districts. Since the signing of the framing agreement, the Congress has, on and off, been vocally accusing the NDA government of not consulting the state government and not making it public. The way the people in Imphal city, the boiling pot of all these issues, have voted is a clear indication of the fact that, more than these issues, there are other factors which have pulled down the Congress to a minority regime at the end, despite the single largest party with 28 seats. However, people in other areas have a different opinion favouring Congress largely in Thoubal and other districts, displaying a divided mandate between the city and the other areas.
Amid the tumultuous issues in hands, Okram Ibobi has managed to sail his government for 15 years by taming the dissenting feuds within the party on many occasions, but without much threat from an outsider until the sudden rise of the BJP recently. Many of his aides had left the party to suit the side with the other opportune parties in this new political configuration, leaving a hollow space for the new Congressmen to fill it up easily. The former CM has constructed his own constituency among the voters by providing them opportunities during his tenure, thereby creating a huge support base to come clean in his locality. However, the case was not the same for other Congressmen who lacked connection with their own people. As a result, many of them got voted out recently. At the same time, some of the former Congressmen who had left to join BJP and other parties just few months before the elections have also failed to score their goal. This is an indicator of a mandate for change of not only the political parties in question but also of the personality in the respective constituency itself. This has also resulted in producing many of the new faces in this verdict where BJP came out with high score. Strategically, unlike BJP’s installation of fresh candidates in order to construct an alternative to the existing faces, the Congress was compelled to go with many of the same old ones in the fray, limiting itself the opportunity to create the space for new faces. The BJP, capturing 21 seats, has reaped the benefits of its hard work over the last three years. Keeping in mind the laxity of political loyalty, it has strategically utilised its efforts by picking up locally competent candidates along with the splitters from the Congress and other parties. Above all, knowing the impossibility of driving the Congress away completely,
The BJP has managed some pre-poll understandings with smaller political parties without taking much risk of going with an electoral alliance that might have caused the larger sentiments.
Tactically, few months ahead of the elections, the Congress government made an attempt to consolidate its support base by creating seven new districts by bifurcating five hill districts and two districts in the valley. Applauded highly of the announcement, it was a celebratory moment for the people who belong to these new districts, expecting multiple opportunities in the future. The government claimed the move was a response to the longstanding demands of the local people as well as it was good for administrative efficiency. Whereas the United Naga Council, an apex body of the Naga people, has alleged that Naga villages have been appropriated and merged with non-Naga areas to form the new districts in an attempt to divide the Naga people without consulting the Hill Areas Committees before taking such a decision. Maintaining that the “lands of the Nagas” left by their forefathers cannot be taken away in this manner, the UNC had launched the economic blockade on two national highways, NH 2and NH 37, skyrocketing the prices of essential commodities in the state. At times, the price of petrol in black market had risen to Rs 250 per litre in the valley and Rs 300 a litre in the hill districts. Knowing the angst of the people in majority, the state government arrested UNC president Gaidon Kamei and its information secretary Stephen Lamkangon November 25, 2016 thereby deepening the divide between Naga and non-Naga communities of the state. The Congress which has acted upon the interests of the larger communities thus turned into a nemesis for the other side for which the economic blockade has to be stretched further. At the end, the result has completely altered the pompous calculation of the Congress to benefit from such a situation.
The newly formed BJP-led government is a product of anti-Congress establishment that the smaller parties have jointly garnered in pursuit of wooing the later back in power. Confidently just after the result was out, the BJP, though short of probable numbers, came out aggressively to claim of getting the majority to install the government by all means. Coupled with the strong interference from the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre, the governor of Manipur, even without inviting the Congress which was the largest single majority party with 28 seats, directly allowed the BJP to manufacture the government for the first time in the state. The governor’s act of not considering the ethics of the anti-defection law also came under criticism. People were critical of the way he accepted an MLA, who was elected on a Congress ticket, to not only support the BJP’s claim but also allowed him to take oath as a cabinet minister later.
In a state having a long history of frequent shift in party loyalty, the BJP has managed the task of installing its first government in Manipur by compromising with other smaller parties on various issues as well as the ministerial portfolios. In fact, the party that had strongly denied going in alliance with the NPF was now compelled to surrender some of the key ministerial posts to the latter. How long these compromises would work is what Manipur has to witness now. Further, what will Congress initiate to kick off another game to win back or remain as a good opposition side are all of suspense?
Immediately after taking over the new government brokered an agreement with the UNC and put an end to the ongoing economic blockade which was a real relief for the people of Manipur. While there was still a round of applause for such a step, another critical issue threatening the question of Manipur’s territorial integrity suddenly cropped up before the government with a statement of NSCN-IM supremo Muivah claiming that the Centre has recognised Naga integration demand in Naga peace accord. Such untimely statement has again worried the new government of the probable repercussion that might hit the state again, thereby making the new CM Nongthombam Biren to rush to New Delhi for consultation with PM Narendra Modi over the issue.
Immune with the shambles of livelihood that people of Manipur have passed through, the expectation from this government is high still. The verdict that the people have given in this election is to bring an immediate change in the state by ignoring the ideological position that the BJP has been known for. The challenge that the state government has to confront such a political equilibrium is multitasking. In such a situation, the party has to wisely maintain the moods of the public at the local level. At the same time, the Congress is to sensitively act as a productive opposition party on the line of public welfare to recover its loss. For the time being, let us pray that the fragility of the situation is handled with care.
At times in manipur, the price of petrol in black market had risen to Rs 250 per litre in the valley and Rs 300 a litre in the hill districts
(Dr. Rajiv Kshetri is a Manipuri Researcher based in New Delhi)