On a sunlit afternoon in February, 55-year-old Ningthoujam Premchandra Singh recalled the night his son was killed.

“It was around 12.15 am,” said Premchandra, a government employee. “Over 30 people were raising slogans on the street and threatening us, telling us not to go out of the house. When my son and I went out to find out what was happening, they barged in despite us warning them they should not enter. Some had sticks and a few barrel guns. They fired indiscriminately,”

That was on the night of December 21-22 in Heirok town in Manipur’s Thoubal district. Both Premchandra and his son, 21-year-old Ningthoujam Rohit, were injured in the attack. Rohit died on the way to the hospital.

Premchandra’s elder son, 27-year-old Ningthoujam Roshan Singh, is convinced the attack was meant for him. He had joined the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2019 but then left the party to campaign for the Congress. Hours before his brother was killed, a scuffle had broken out between Congress and BJP workers in Heirok, with bullets flying between the two sides.

“They had come for me,” he said. “They were trying to kill me as I work against them. I was in the BJP a few years ago. It was the BJP MLA’s brother who shot Rohit and my father. It was a political attack.”

One of the six people taken into custody after Rohit’s killing was Thokchom Bishworjit Singh alias Putro, brother of the Heirok assembly constituency’s BJP legislator, Th Radheshyam. Traditionally, Heirok has been a Congress citadel but in 2017, Radheshyam had defeated four-time MLA Moirangthem Okendra by 1,647 votes, helping the BJP to power in Manipur for the first time. This time, too, Heirok seems headed for a close contest between the Congress and the BJP.

Heirok remained under curfew for days and heavy security deployment still remains in the run up to the assembly elections, scheduled for February 28 and March 5. Rohit’s killing heralded a season of poll violence in Manipur.

On January 9, 59-year-old Abujam John Singh and his cousin, 37-year-old Abujam Sashikanta Tomba Singh, were fatally shot in Samurou in Imphal West district. The incident took place outside the house of John Singh, who was a close aide of O Lukhoi, Manipur’s agriculture minister and BJP candidate from Wangoi assembly constituency.

“My brother was the victim of a political conspiracy – we have a suspect,” said 45-year-old A Tolish, refusing to name the suspect. A special investigation team formed by the police also suspects it was a political killing. Police officials in the state said they believed it was a case of inter-party violence.

Manipur is not new to pre-poll violence. The state has seen decades of militancy, spawned by demands for ethnic homelands by different groups. As they waged war on the state, many of these militant groups tried to derail or control electoral processes. But this time, voters and observers feel, violence comes from a different source.

“Earlier it was militant violence and now it is political violence,” said N Luwang, a resident of Samurou.

Part of the churn may be traced to a bloated state BJP, which came to power on the strength of defections from other parties but was unable to accommodate the political ambitions of all those who joined its ranks. It has led to tensions within party ranks, and many breaking away altogether.

A Tolish, brother of Abujam John Singh, who was shot by unknown gunmen this January. Picture credit: Rokibuz Zaman

A party of defections

Take Nishikant Singh Sapam, owner of the Sangai Express, one of Manipur’s leading English-language dailies. He had joined the BJP in 2019 but is contesting the assembly polls as an independent candidate after he was denied a party ticket.

“I am a hardcore BJP supporter,” said Sapam, sitting in his office in Imphal. “But I don’t like the Manipur BJP as there is no accountability and transparency. I was denied a ticket because maine sifaarish nahi kiye [I did not request it]. The BJP is supposed to be a party with a difference. But there is nepotism and favouritism in the Manipur BJP, which is full of former Congressis.”

Like in other North Eastern states, the BJP’s rise in Manipur has indeed been powered by defections by established leaders from other parties, especially the Congress. Before the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, the party was a marginal presence in the region. Since then, it has formed government or is part of the ruling coalition in six out of seven states. The BJP’s pointman in the region, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, is a Congress import. So is Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu and, indeed, Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh.

But this strategy might have reached its limits. Allotting tickets turned out to be a tricky business this year as there were multiple aspirants to every seat. After the BJP announced its candidate list in January, party supporters took to the streets in violent protest, burning BJP flags as well as effigies of Prime Minister Modi and Biren Singh. A common refrain was that the party had ignored long-time members to accommodate more recent defectors.

“Many prospective BJP candidates, having the potential to win, were denied tickets at the last moment because of internal wrangling,” said an Imphal-based journalist who did not want to be named.

Manipur BJP vice-president Chingangbam Chidananda Singh made light of the internal competition for tickets, saying it only reflected the party’s popularity.

“It is natural to be disappointed after not getting tickets,” he said. “Most winnable candidates got the tickets. Traditionally, politics in Manipur is driven by individuals but the BJP is trying to create party-based politics so that voters accept the faith, ideologies and vision of the party.”

Despite his confidence, the BJP has seen an erosion of party ranks over the last few weeks. Even relatively newer recruits like Sapam left the party, along with 3,500 party members who were primarily loyal to him. Many others have joined the Congress, from a sitting BJP MLA who was denied a ticket to at least 1,400 party workers who claimed to have grown disillusioned with the BJP because it had failed to tackle drugs and corruption.

Nishikant Singh Sapam, who owns one of Manipur's leading English-language dailies, had joined the BJP but left in disappointment. Picture credit: Rokibuz Zaman

Congress’s gain?

But does the BJP’s loss mean the Congress’s gain? In the assembly polls of 2017, the Congress, then ruling for three terms in Manipur, had emerged as the single largest party in the state, winning 28 seats. But the BJP formed government, thanks to alliances cobbled together after the elections.

Since then, 12 Congress legislators have joined the BJP. Four others who had won as Congress candidates in 2017 are now contesting from other parties – three from the Janata Dal (United) and one from the Naga People’s Front.

Despite long stints in power in Manipur, loyal support bases, especially in the Imphal Valley and a flood of disillusioned BJP cadre joining its ranks, the Congress also seems riven by internal dissensions.

Like the BJP, it may have a ticketing problem. While the BJP is contesting all 60 seats in the state assembly, the Congress is contesting 53 seats. In 23 of these seats, the Congress is fielding new faces. It has left several entrenched leaders in the party unhappy.

RK Imo Singh, who is Chief Minister Biren Singh’s son-in-law as well as the son of former chief minister and Congress veteran Rajkumar Jaichandra Singh, is contesting on a BJP ticket this time. When asked about his reasons for leaving the Congress, Imo Singh vaguely alluded to the fact that a senior Congress leader was “trying to run the party in a whimsical manner”.

Senior party leaders in the state admit defections have hurt the Congress but believe they will benefit from anti-incumbency.

“No doubt these defections have affected the party,” said Manipur Congress vice-president Kh Devabrata Singh. “But our anti-BJP votes will remain intact. That’s our strength.”

Imo Singh left the Congress and is contesting on a BJP ticket this time. Picture credit: Rokiuz Zaman

Uncertain allies

Imo Singh is now contesting on a BJP ticket from Sagolband constituency. In 2017, he had won the same seat on a Congress ticket, beating the BJP candidate, Kh Loken, by just 19 votes. Loken, a former Congress leader, had joined the BJP in 2016 and was one of the new recruits who got a party ticket in the last assembly election. Ousted by a fresher recruit this time, Loken stormed out of the BJP and joined the Janata Dal (United).

Indeed, at least eight candidates denied tickets by the BJP have joined the Janata Dal (United), which is an ally of the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre and in a coalition with the BJP in Bihar. As polls approach, the BJP cannot rely on allies at the state or the Central level.

A relatively new presence in Manipur, the Janata Dal (United) has fielded candidates in 38 seats. Apart from the BJP rebels, the list includes former director general of police LM Khaute and Th Brinda Devi, a well-known police officer who was also a vocal critic of the state government. Before she joined the Janata Dal (United), however, it was speculated she might join the BJP.

Afaque Ahmed Khan, JD(U) national general secretary, said, “We expect to win at least eight seats. The legislature party of Manipur JD(U) will decide whom they will support in the post poll scenario. Our party is banking on good governance, clean image of Nitish Kumar and his performance in Bihar.”

Two of the BJP’s major allies in Manipur – the National People’s Party and the Naga People’s Front – are going it alone these elections. The Naga People’s Front is fielding candidates from 10 seats and the National People’s Party from 38.

Some of the pre-poll violence was reportedly between BJP and National People’s Party workers. “It is quite funny that Congress is accusing us of being the B-Team of the BJP – the BJP sees the NPP as a threat and that’s why they are attacking our workers,” said Ratika Yumnam, who is the party’s youth president. She is also the daughter of Manipur deputy chief minister and National People’s Party vice president Y Joykumar.

NPP's Ratika Yumnam accused its ally BJP of suppressing and weakening the NPP in Manipur, alleging BJP didn't allow the NPP ministers to work.

Yumnam, who predicted it would be a close fight between their party and the BJP in many seats, was non-committal about a post-poll alliance with the BJP. While they helped the BJP form government in 2017, it has been a turbulent alliance, with the National People’s Party even withdrawing support at one point.

The Naga People’s Front, which is influential in 11 Naga-dominated constituencies in the Manipur hills, is also airing its grievances against the BJP. These include the stalling of a bill to extend the powers of the Hill Areas Autonomous District Council and the continued presence of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which gives sweeping powers to the military, in Manipur.

“The non-introduction of a new ADC bill, protection of tribal rights, an amicable resolution of the Naga peace talks and repeal of AFSPA are our core issues,” said Naga People’s Front legislator Leishiyo Keishing, who is also chairman of the Manipur Legislative Assembly Hill Areas Committee.

With the BJP and Congress in troubled waters, there is talk of a hung parliament. As Rajesh Hijam, editor of the Sangai Express, observed, “The smaller parties, NPP, JDU and NPF, can easily turn out to be kingmakers in the Manipur polls.”

Money and muscle power

According to accepted wisdom, however, the party that commands the most economic heft and muscle power wins in Manipur. Traditionally, that has been the party in power at the Centre.

Money and arms have made electoral democracy just a “performative one,” said human rights activist Binalakkshmi Nepram. “The fight over party tickets and the huge amount of money paid in crores to get party seats are common knowledge,” she added.

Women are on the way to the candidate’s house to donate fruits, rice, vegetables among others which is a traditional Manipuri practice during the flag-hoisting ceremony. PC: Special arrangement

It is not just tickets, candidates and party leaders in Manipur speak quite frankly about having to pay voters to win. The Election Commission limits campaign expenditure to Rs 28 lakh per candidate. In Manipur, candidates across parties say they notch up a much higher election bill.

“It is very normal to spend Rs 5 crore-10 crore on the 20,000-30,000 voters in each constituency in Manipur,” said one Janata Dal (United) candidate.

A BJP leader in charge of a Manipur district was candid in his admissions. “Politics in Manipur is totally different from the rest of the country,” he said. “There are about 30,000 voters in the constituency where I am in charge. We are spending Rs 5,000-10,000 on a single family to bring them into our fold.”

Another BJP district in-charge echoed him, “There is no ideology here, they will vote for whoever pays them.”

As one Congress leader ruefully said, “Money is the equaliser. Without distributing money, one can’t consider winning an election. Everyone should have the ability to distribute money.”

It has left a lot of voters disillusioned with the election process. “There are lots of issues like the repeal of AFSPA and huge unemployment and Covid-induced economic distress,” said 45-year-old Ranjit Laishram, a resident of Bishnupur district. “There was no real help from the government. But all these will get buried under the influence of money and muscle power.”

Voting for Delhi

Two factors seem to overrun other considerations in Manipur. First, most voters say they are loyal to the candidate rather than the party, so their vote migrates as the candidate jumps parties. Second, voters say they would prefer to vote for the party in power in Delhi.

Take S Ranjitha, a 42-year-old shopkeeper who suffered huge losses during the pandemic lockdown. The goods she sold expired, leading to losses worth Rs 2 lakh. The shop was her only source of income and there was no help from the government apart from monthly rations. She would like a loan from the government to get her business back on track but, either way, she will vote for the BJP as she supports the BJP candidate.

Others have similar stories. Fifty-two-year-old S Vikram and 50-year-old S Premabhati run a small garment shop in Sagolband constituency. During the lockdown, they had no income and depended on supplies from a non-governmental organisation to survive.

“The government was totally absent,” said Vikram. “Our family only received five kilogrammes of food grain per person under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana.”

Premabhati agreed. “We did not get a government cylinder for one year during the lockdown,” he said. “We had to buy cylinders Rs 1,500-Rs 2,000 from the black market.”

But when asked whom they will vote for, they said, “We prefer to vote for the party which is in power in Delhi.”

S Vikram and S Premabhati said they prefer to vote for the party which is in power in Delhi

Meanwhile, as polls approach, there are palpable tensions in many parts of the state. Anis Ali, who works at a mobile shop in Imphal city, lives 14 kilometres outside town in Keirao in Imphal East district. Every evening, the 23-year-old hurries home after work.

“There has been violence over hoisting flags – no one is allowed to hoist flags other than BJP’s,” he said. “Many vehicles were damaged in the last month. We have to reach home before 7 pm. It is not safe to roam after that.”