Massive protests demanding the removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, the insurgency problem that led to the death of an Assam Rifles commanding officer and his family last year, a string of defections, the strained relationship between the hills and the valley – Manipur, in many ways, stands out among the five states that went to polls this year.
While most of these issues have made it to the headlines, it remains to be seen if they influence voting decisions in the elections marked by a bout of political violence and defections.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has been confident about retaining power, but faces more than just its old rival the Congress this time. Ally-turned-foe National People’s Party, led by Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma, the Naga People’s Front and the Janata Dal (United) – an ally of the BJP in Bihar – could play more than just a minor role after the results and be kingmakers if there is a hung House. The Naga People’s Front and National People’s Party, though part of the BJP-led government in Manipur, are contesting the polls separately.
Manipur has a total of 60 Assembly seats.
The hill-valley divide
The valley accounts for 40 of Manipur’s 60 Assembly seats. The Meiteis or non-tribal Vaishnavite Hindus, who live in the valley region, have more political influence in the state. This has led to the deeper political divide with the hill areas, which is home to several tribal communities.
After securing power, the BJP promised to bridge the divide and launched a reconciliation project dubbed “Go to Hills” in 2018 to expedite development.
The campaign’s impact on the ground has evoked mixed responses from residents. A student leader told The Indian Express that it gave the hill districts hope, but a teacher at a government college in Ukhrul dismissed it as “eyewash”.
“Ours is the second-oldest government college in Manipur [set up around 50 years ago],” she said. “But it is in shambles…There is a shortage of everything, classrooms, water.”
Manipur’s per capita income is well below the national average, the 2020-’21 Economic Survey report of the state showed.
Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren Singh, a Meitei, told The Hindu that he was confident that the BJP could form the government on its own by winning more than 40 seats.
While banking on development work, Singh, however, conceded that a lot more needs to be done in the hills. The BJP, he added, was working “step by step”.
The state was caught in turmoil before we formed the government. There were encounters, bandhs, blockades and the [non-tribal Meitei-dominated] valley and the [tribal-inhabited] hills were divided. The law-and-order situation was so bad that the entire state used to shut down by 5 pm. These changed for the better in the last five years. The relationship between different ethnic groups has improved tremendously.— Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren Singh to 'The Hindu'
From Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Union Home Minister Amit Shah, the BJP’s campaign has focused on “peace, stability and normalcy” as opposed to the “instability, insurgency and inequality” under the previous Ibobi Singh led-Congress government from 2002-2015.
Manipur, formerly a princely state, including parts of Burma, made the accession into India on October 15, 1949, but was granted statehood only in 1972. The resentment over the alleged “forceful” inclusion into India and the delay in granting it full-fledged statehood led to the rise of various insurgent movements.
The problem was further exacerbated after Manipur was declared a “disturbed area” in 1980, under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act to suppress the insurgency movement. AFSPA gives the military sweeping powers to search, arrest and to open fire if they deem it necessary for “the maintenance of public order”. It remains in force till now, but voters told Scroll.in it will not affect their electoral choices.
Under the Congress rule, the North Eastern state had witnessed months-long economic blockades, a peak in insurgency activity and a rapid jump in extrajudicial killings.
The BJP is cashing in on the fact that there were no major incidents reported in the last five years, claiming insurgent activities have reduced after it came to power.
At a rally in the hill district of Churachandpur on February 23, Amit Shah had also declared that the BJP would end the Kuki insurgency problem in five years, if it is voted to power a second time. The Kuki tribes, living mainly in the hills, comprise nearly 30% of the total 28.5 lakh population of Manipur.
Churachandpur is the same district where four Assam Rifles soldiers, a commanding officer, his wife and eight-year-old son were killed in an ambush by militants in November.
The prime minister, meanwhile, in his rallies claimed that the “double engine” government of the BJP transformed Manipur from a “blockade state” into one with routes for international trade.
Imphal-based human rights activist Babloo Lointongbam told The Indian Express that the law and order situation was much better now, but attributed this to the work done by civil society organisations and not the BJP. “Between 2004 and 2008, there was active confrontation between the state and insurgents,” he noted.
Congress spokesperson Devabrata Singh also said that “times were bad in the early 2000s”. He stressed that the situation began to improve during the last term of the Ibobi Singh government. “Now, the BJP swoops in and tries to take credit,” he claimed.
The Congress has also reminded voters that AFSPA had been repealed from seven Assembly constituencies, including state capital Imphal, when it was in power.
Critics of the BJP, however, pointed out that the situation in the state has only worsened, especially since December.
Manipur has witnessed a bout of violence this season, which voters and observers told Scroll.in erupted from a new source. “Earlier it was militant violence and now it is political violence,” said N Luwang, a resident of Samurou.
Youth Collective Manipur, formed by a group of students and human rights activists, documented that there had been at least 46 incidents of poll violence till February 26, including four killings, 10 blasts and 15 cases where guns were used.
The violence first started in December after a college student was shot dead and his father was injured in Heirok Assembly constituency of Thoubal district. The brother of a sitting BJP MLA Thokchom Bishworjit Singh was among those arrested.
Then in January, BJP worker Abujam John and his cousin Abujam Sashikanta were killed in Imphal West district. John was reportedly close to Manipur agriculture minister O Lukhoi.
In February, Lourembam Samjai Singh, father of National People’s Party candidate Lourembam Sanjoy Singh, who is contesting from Andro Assembly constituency, was shot at by armed miscreants.
Janata Dal (United) candidate Wahengbam Rohit Singh, who is contesting from the Kshetrigao seat in the Imphal valley, was also shot at on February 27.
In the first phase, 173 candidates, including 15 women, contested from 38 seats. In the second phase, 92 candidates, with only two women were in the fray. The total turnout in both the phases was 89.24%. In 2017, it was 85.87%.
Similar to other North Eastern states, the BJP’s rise in Manipur has been powered by defections by established leaders from other parties, especially the Congress.
The political violence shows a bloated state unit of the BJP, which came to power on the strength of defections but could not accommodate the political ambitions of all those who joined its ranks. It has led to tensions within party ranks, with many breaking away altogether.
The BJP had at least three ticket aspirants for each of the 60 Assembly seats in the state. Soon after the BJP announced its candidate list in January, supporters took to the streets in violent protest, burning BJP flags as well as effigies of Modi and Biren Singh. A common refrain among many aspirants was that the saffron party had ignored long-time members to accommodate more recent defectors.
At least eight candidates denied tickets by the BJP have joined the Janata Dal (United). The defectors include MLA Kshetrimayum Biren, former MLAs Samuel Jendai and Khwairakpam Loken, former Chief Secretary O Nabakishore, former Director General of Police LM Khaute and Th Brinda Devi, a well-known police officer.
Significantly, the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) had mostly fielded candidates who were denied tickets by the BJP in the 2019 Arunachal Pradesh polls and ended up as the second largest party by securing seven seats.
On Thursday, apart from Biren Singh and Ibobi Singh, they key candidates and seats to track are:
- Thongam Biswajit Singh, a minister and former BJP leader. He fought from Thongju seat of Imphal East district.
- RK Imo Singh, son-in-law of Biren Singh and a BJP leader. He contested from Sagolband constituency.
- N Loken Singh, Manipur Congress chief. He fought from Nambol seat.
- Leishiyo Keishing, Naga People’s Front. He contested from Phungyar.
- Y Joykumar Singh, Deputy chief minister. He contested from Uripok in Imphal West district.
In 2017, the BJP secured 21 seats and came to power for the first time after stitching together a coalition government with the support of four NPP MLAs, four Naga People’s Front members, lone Trinamool Congress MLA and an Independent member. The Congress, then ruling for three terms in Manipur, had emerged as the single largest party in the state.
Exit polls on Monday showed that the BJP is likely to emerge as the single-largest party this time.
The BJP is contesting all 60 seats in the state Assembly and the Congress is trying its luck in 53 seats. Exit polls indicated that the Congress might get 12-17 seats.
The NPF is contesting in 10 seats, all in the hills, while the NPP is fighting in 39 seats – a majority of these in the hills.