Back in 2017, Manipur did not have a government for days after the results of the assembly elections were declared. The polls had led to a hung assembly, with the incumbent Congress winning 28 out of 60 seats and the Bharatiya Janata Party winning just 21.

Days of intrigue followed as both parties raced to form coalitions. There were defections, rumoured abductions and mysterious letters, until the BJP emerged triumphant, cobbling together a coalition to form government for the first time in Manipur.

This year, the BJP weathered defections and an internal churn to consolidate power in the state. As of Thursday evening, the party was leading in 32 seats. It will not need allies to form government a second time.

The Congress was leading in a paltry six seats, trailing behind regional players such as the National People’s Party and relative newcomers like the Janata Dal (United).

While the Congress’s loss was the BJP’s gain, party politics alone may not explain the Manipur election results.

The decline of the Congress

The Congress has historically been strong in Manipur. In 2017, it emerged as the single largest party after three consecutive terms in power. But since then, the party has seen a steady erosion, with many of its legislators defecting to the BJP.

“People wanted some alternative as the Congress’s popularity has declined,” explained Imphal-based political scientist Nameirapakam Bijen Meetei. “The NPP was part of the [state] government and they did some good politics. This is the loss of the Congress as their vote is going to the BJP.”

Social scientist A Bimol Akoijam explained that the Congress’s failure to be an effective opposition in Manipur had helped the BJP.

“In many instances, they kept silent when the opposition should have been more vocal,” he said. For instance, he pointed out, the Congress remained silent when journalists critical of the BJP government were detained in Manipur.

Besides, Akoijam felt, the BJP had built better organisational networks in Manipur. “Many of the Congress leaders don’t work on the ground,” he said. “The BJP’s sister organisations, like the RSS, [have been] very active here for almost five years.”

Gifts and guns

The BJP was able to straddle a major political faultline in Manipur: between the tribal districts of the hills and the Meitei-majority Imphal Valley.

In Imphal, many voters are thankful for the end of long economic blockades, triggered by political tensions between the hills and the valley and choking off vital supply lines. In the hills, a number of voters claimed the BJP had narrowed the economic divide between the tribal districts and Imphal.

But there may be other factors, outside election promises and party ideology, driving the BJP’s success. Meetei pointed to an old trend in North Eastern states: most voters prefer the party in power at the Centre. That put the BJP at an advantage. He also suggested that the BJP had spent the most money on the elections.

Candidates and party workers in Manipur are candid about distributing money and other largesse for votes. On March 9, Manipur’s chief electoral officer Rajesh Agarwal announced they had seized money, drugs, gold and other handouts worth Rs 170 crore, up from Rs 5 crore in the last elections.

Like past polls in the state, which has seen decades of ethnic militancy, electoral outcomes are also believed to have been influenced by underground groups. The BJP’s success in the hill districts may have been bolstered by the support of Kuki armed groups, who reportedly issued a diktat to voters.

“Armed groups have openly said that if you don’t support BJP you will face the consequences,” said Babloo Loitongbam, who heads the Imphal-based Human Rights Alert and is adviser to the Youth Collective Manipur, which is monitoring the elections.

Free and fair elections?

According to Loitongbam, the Manipur polls could not be characterised as “free and fair elections”. “Many agents [were] intimidated and threatened not to go to [polling booths],” he said. “A complaint was filed, nothing happened. With so much rigging and vote capturing I’m surprised that BJP didn’t win 60/60. It was not a level playing field for other political parties to fight.”

It has been an exceptionally violent poll season in Manipur. While armed groups have traditionally been held responsible for poll violence, inter- and intra-party violence was added to the mix this time.

According to the Youth Collective Manipur, there were at least 46 incidents of poll-related violence till February 26, including four killings, 10 blasts, and 15 instances of gun violence. Two persons were also killed and another injured as violence marred the second phase of elections on March 5, prompting a repoll in 12 polling stations.

Meetei echoed Loitongbam. The violence and the repolling had pressured many voters into going with the powerful ruling party supported by armed groups. “We had expected the BJP to emerge as the single largest party,” he said. “But it is surprising that BJP won more than expected.”