The Election Commission on Wednesday announced dates for the Manipur Assembly elections, with the state’s 60 seats set to go to the polls in two phases: March 4 and March 8. Counting for the entire state will be conducted on March 11.

Polls in Manipur mean something quite different from mainland India. The tiny state – its population is a fifth of Mumbai city’s – is currently under a debilitating road blockade from Naga groups, who are angry at the Congress government’s decision to carve out seven districts from hitherto Naga-dominated areas. The blockade means essentials like fuel, food and medicines are barely reaching Manipuris. Petrol is selling for Rs 300 per litre. In mainland India, this would be an emergency.

The Congress, leveraging its position in the Union government, has been the main party in the state. While the BJP has historically never been a player, such is the politics of Manipur, that its current position in the Union government automatically makes it a major contender in the state.

Paradoxically, the ruling Congress is actually benefitting politically from this blockade. The incumbent chief minister, Okram Ibobi Singh – who is in his third term in office – was actually rather unpopular in the state till this crisis hit. The Meitis, Manipur’s dominant community, disliked Singh for failing to introduce an inner line permit system, which would have prevented outsiders from moving to Manipur. The blockade, though, has created the impression that the Bharatiya Janata Party supports the Nagas – which in turn means the Meitis have gone right back to backing the Congress.

The BJP, on the other hand, is caught between a rock and a hard place. Using force to end the blockade might jeopardise the peace process with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah). Of course, doing nothing antagonises the Meitis of Manipur.

In fact, so backed into the corner was the BJP that speculation raged that President’s rule would be imposed, allowing the Union government to take over Manipur. This even prompted the chief minister to rush to New Delhi with a majority of Congress MLAs and meet President Pranab Mukherjee. However, since the Election Commission has not postponed the election, this now looks unlikely.

All of this is happening in the backdrop of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which gives the army and paramilitary forces immunity from prosecution. The act has been criticised for facilitating human rights abuses, most recently by the Supreme Court itself. Irom Sharmila, the Gandhian who fasted unsuccessfully for 16 years to repel the AFSPA – she was force-fed and kept alive – has announced her candidature for the Assembly elections. She will take on the chief minister in his constituency.