The Bharatiya Janata Party has returned to power in Manipur with an absolute majority. With 32 seats in the 60-seat assembly, the party will not need allies to form a government.

This is a marked change from the 2017 elections. After 15 years in power, the Congress government led by Okram Ibobi Singh was mired in controversies – the creation of seven new districts and the passing of three contentious bills that appeared to dilute protections assured to the tribal hill districts of Manipur. While the Congress still emerged as the single-largest party in those elections, getting 28 out of 60 seats, strong resentments in the tribal areas, to an extent, helped the BJP to power. With 21 seats, the party managed to cobble together a ruling alliance with the Naga People’s Front, the National People’s Party and the Lok Janshakti Party.

But does Manipur’s equation with electoral politics shift with the rise of the BJP? Ground realities and the nature of public participation in the electoral processes suggest otherwise. The dynamics of the poll process in Manipur are largely disconnected from party ideologies.

Voting patterns in Manipur, especially in the hills, remain largely determined by clan, village and tribal affiliations, or by diktats by militant groups, in some cases. In the Imphal Valley, the party that holds power in the Centre has an advantage.

By and large, Manipur’s electoral dynamic is about power and networking and, to a certain extent, development and job creation. In the hill districts in particular, it is about paying heed to the interests of the tribal communities who live in these areas – although this is largely empty talk.

Hills vs Valley

Manipur has 10 tribal hill districts; the dominant communities here are Nagas and Kukis. The Meitei-dominated Imphal Valley constitutes 8% of the state’s geographical area and comprises 53% of its total population.

Out of the 60 constituencies in the state assembly, 40 seats are set aside for the valley and 20 for the hills. This unequal distribution of seats, as well as the troubled ethnic histories of various communities, defines the relationship between the hills and the valley.

After becoming Manipur chief minister in 2017, N Biren Singh tried to address the gap between the hills and the valley by launching various initiatives, such as the “Go to Hills” campaign. In the early years of the government, Biren Singh gained popularity for highlighting the interests of the hills.

Gradually, however, it was observed that the Biren Singh-led BJP government was no different from preceding governments in sidelining the hills. A fresh crop of issues deepened the hill-valley divide once again, such as the Autonomous District Council Bill of 2021, which aimed to enhance the powers of the tribal hill council, and the proposed delimitation of constituencies. Neither was implemented, sharpening resentments in the hills.

In order to quell protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act – local communities in Manipur fear the law will lead to a flood of people from outside settling in the state – the government hastily introduced the Inner Line Permit. The permit, which is required by people from outside the state to enter Manipur, is regarded warily by the hills, especially after the three contentious bills passed in 2015. The hills interpret the push for an Inner Line Permit as a valley politics to dilute special protections assured to them.

The valley also had its own troubles, such as the frequent arrest of journalists and others who criticised the government. Yet the BJP returned to power with a complete majority.

In the run up to the assembly elections, the BJP faced discontent within, as party workers denied tickets broke into violent protests. A section of them switched to rival parties to get tickets, which suggests ideology is not a determining factor for which party candidates choose either.

Peace talks and politics

The constituent elements of the Manipur electoral dynamics have little to do with concerns surrounding injustices and inequalities the people experience. These concerns are not reflected in election results, even if parties attempt to take them up.

Take the question of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, a law which gives the military sweeping powers to search, arrest and open fire. After the Indian Army allegedly shot dead 14 civilians in Nagaland this December, there were protests across North Eastern states, demanding that the law be repealed. Various party manifestos, except the BJP’s, promised to repeal AFSPA.

Such promises have been made before as well but after election results are declared, they are forgotten. It needs to be asked why elected governments are not held accountable to the promises they make.

For instance, the Naga People’s Front raised the question of Indo-Naga peace talks in its campaign yet again. The Naga framework agreement signed between the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah faction) in 2015 is yet to translate into a final settlement. The NSCN (IM) is the largest of the Naga armed groups that have fought for a separate Naga homeland for decades. Through its support for the BJP in 2017, the Naga People’s Front had hoped to further Naga aspirations. The coalition does not seem to have yielded any resolute outcome.

While the Indo-Naga peace talks remain in limbo, the government made fresh overtures to Kuki armed groups that have signed suspension of operation agreements with the government. The Kukis, too, have waged an armed struggle for a separate ethnic homeland. It must be mentioned here that Nagas and Kukis have historically shared a tense relationship around land.

On February 23, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, campaigning in Churachandpur, gave assurances that peace talks with Kuki armed groups would lead to a settlement within five years. Two days later, Kuki National Organisation, an umbrella body of various armed groups, issued a statement of support for BJP candidates. It urged village chiefs and civil society leaders to support the party as well – anyone who did not do so would be considered to be “acting against Kuki interests”, the statement said.

Protests in Churachandpur against the three contentious bills of 2015. Picture credit: IANS

Deepening the divide

Both the Union and state governments understand that ethnic demands evoke emotional responses in the hills. They also know that tribal communities in the hills have become dependent on the state for their contesting ethnic aspirations. If one community fails to support the party in power, it might mean another community racing ahead of them in terms of political recognition and economic benefits.

Meanwhile, the Imphal Valley, with its overwhelming majority of seats, manages to set the agenda for the whole state and spread its influence in the hills. The rhetoric of economic development which emanates from the valley has propelled the entry of the railways and palm oil cultivation in the hills.

While economic development has become a reality to some extent, protecting and preserving the hill peoples’ rights, culture, and resources are issues that are inadequately addressed.

Instead, electoral campaigns only heighten ethnic tensions. The colonial state laid the foundations for playing into ethnic tensions by deepening the divide between communities. The post-colonial state continues to manoeuvre ethnic faultlines to its advantage.

Richard Kamei is a lecturer at the Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan.

Roderick Wijunamai is a PhD student at Cornell University, New York.