Five years is too long a period to remain out of power. Especially for a party like the Congress which relies almost exclusively on power, pelf and patronage (the three crucial ‘p’s) to keep its flock together.
Being confined to the opposition benches over the last half decade, the Congress finds its ranks depleted, hit by intense factionalism and petty squabbles, and unable to shape a coherent strategy that can improve its electoral prospects.
The Congress also does not have a fresh face to re-energise the party machinery and lead it in the hustings. Thanks to differences among its senior leaders, the party has played it safe and named its three-time chief minister — the 74 year-old ailing Okram Ibobi Singh — to lead it in the polls.
The inability of the Congress to groom a second-rung leadership and stem rivalries among its senior state leaders may cost the party dear.
The Congress in Manipur has also suffered an erosion in its ranks. Though its emerged as the single largest party in 2017, winning 28 of the 60 assembly seats, a more nimble-footed BJP (which won 21 seats) managed to stitch post-poll alliances with smaller parties like the Naga People's Front (NPF) and the National People's Party (NPP) to form the government.
The inability of the Congress leadership to move fast and get the support of smaller parties triggered acute disgruntlement within the party’s rank and file and severe criticism of its leadership.
An exodus of leaders and workers, including some MLAs, from the Congress to the BJP and other parties followed, leading to demoralisation in the party’s ranks. That state of affairs continues; Sunday (9 January) saw senior Congress MLA and vice-president of its state unit Chaltonlien Amo joining the BJP.
The Congress central leadership, beset by its own problems, has also not been able to take corrective action and stem the downslide of its Manipur unit.
But it is not just a lack of strong leadership, organisational weaknesses and factionalism that hobbles the chances of the Congress to win back power in the state.
Though it has ruled the state for many years — Ibobi Singh was chief minister for three straight terms from March 2002 to March 2017 — the Congress has failed to deliver. Corruption, nepotism, lack of development, petty politicking, insurgency and failure of the law and order machinery have marked the Congress’ long decades in power. Compared to the decades under Congress rule, Manipur has witnessed a push for development over the last five years.
In terms of infrastructure, till five years ago, no road in the state was free of potholes, bridges were unsafe and often collapsed, sanitation was non-existent and a railway project was going nowhere. Under Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren Singh, the condition of roads and other physical infrastructure has improved, and a number of new roads and bridges have been built. Manipur got on the railway map of the country in July last year after decades of frustrating delays.
Last weekend, rail links between landlocked Manipur and the rest of the country received a further boost with the inauguration of a fast passenger train between that state and Assam.
A week ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated 13 projects worth around Rs 1,850 crore and laid the foundations of nine projects worth over Rs 2,950 crore in Manipur. These projects cover physical and social infrastructure as well as skill development and education.
On Thursday (6 January), Union Home Minister Amit Shah virtually inaugurated and laid the foundation stone for 29 development works worth Rs 2,450 crore.
“Our sole focus has been development. A new era has been ushered in Manipur and the state has witnessed unprecedented development. Along with development of physical and social infrastructure, we have successfully implemented a huge number of social welfare measures. We have also focused on skill development and employment,” Chief Minister Biren Singh told Swarajya.
“People have tasted development and will vote for the BJP once again to ensure that the pace of development continues uninterrupted. The fact that the BJP is in power both in the state and the Centre has provided Manipur with this ‘double engine government’ that has ensured an accelerated pace of development of the state,” the Chief Minister added.
Manipur has also witnessed relative peace over the past five years. Though insurgency is yet to be wiped out — sporadic acts like the ambush on an Assam Rifles convoy that killed a senior army officer, his wife and son in mid-November continue — the era of fear and foreboding are over. And insurgency no longer impacts the daily life of the common man in the state.
While the Congress, thus, does not present much of a challenge to the BJP, the saffron party’s mixed success in making inroads into the tribal-dominated hills can prevent it from winning a majority on its own.
Of the 60 seats in the state assembly, the Imphal Valley dominated by the Meiteis — most of them Vaishnavites — account for the lion’s share of 40 seats. Muslims are a deciding factor in four of these seats in Imphal Valley. The hills that ring Imphal Valley account for the remaining 20 seats, and tribes that lay claim to the ‘Naga’ identity as well as the Kukis have a more or less equal share of these seats.
Some of the Kuki-dominated seats were won by the BJP in 2017, but the NPF remains unchallenged in the ‘Naga’-dominated constituencies.
The BJP’s challenge is to ensure that it bags a large majority of the 40 seats in Imphal Valley. The Congress still retains its pockets of influence, and smaller parties like the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), the Janata Dal (United) and even the Trinamool Congress can make the going difficult for the saffron party in the valley.
The NPF and the NPP won four seats each in 2017 while the LJP and the Trinamool got one seat each. The NPF and the NPP are constituents of the BJP-led ruling alliance in the state, but all three are contesting the elections independently. But the prospects of the three striking a post-poll alliance are very high, and the BJP thus does not have to worry even if it falls a little short of majority.
Political observers say that an informal understanding exists between the BJP, NPP and NPF and the three would join forces once again after the elections. Political compulsions have led to the three contesting the polls independently, say the observers.
Manipur, thus, is most likely to remain saffron and the BJP, along with its allies, appears set to return to power in the state.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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