BJP must utilise Himanta Biswa Sarma’s considerable talent and give him a free hand in crafting the party’s electoral strategy in Manipur.
Then, and only then, can the BJP hope to win this northeastern state.
Till about three months ago, the going seemed to be good for the BJP in Manipur. The Congress government under Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, which has been in power for the last 15 years, was suffering from severe anti-incumbency. After ruling the state for one-and-a-half decades, the Congress government was widely perceived to be mired in corruption and the BJP, on the other hand, was seen to be a good and strong alternative to the Congress. The BJP, felt the people of Manipur, could provide good governance and usher in a new era of development in Manipur, a state that has seen barely any progress on any front over the past many decades.
But that was till the Nagas living in the hills surrounding Imphal Valley (which houses state capital Imphal and where the state’s majority community – the Meiteis – are concentrated in) imposed a crippling economic blockade on 1 November 2016. The Nagas blocked Manipur’s two lifelines – National Highways 2 and 37 – that bring in all supplies, including petroleum products, foodstuff, medicines, construction materials and even baby food, to the state.
National Highway 2 (see map) originates in Assam and makes its way southward through Nagaland, the Naga-inhabited hill district of Senapati in Manipur to reach Imphal Valley while NH 37 (see map) also originates in Assam and heads eastward to Imphal Valley through another Naga-inhabited district (Tamenglong). The Nagas have been at loggerheads with the Meiteis since the 1990s over their (the Nagas’) demand for integration of Naga-inhabited areas in the hills of Manipur with Nagaland. To the Meiteis, the territorial integrity of their landlocked state is a highly emotive issue.
Chief Minister Ibobi Singh, 69, a shrewd politician, knew he was staring at the prospect of a defeat in the state assembly polls scheduled for February-March this year. So, in a bid to win over the Kukis of the state, who form about 10 per cent of the state’s current estimated population of 30.52 lakh, he proposed to create two new districts from the existing hill districts of the state. The creation of the two districts had been a long-standing demand of the Kukis, who co-inhabit with the Nagas in Manipur’s hills. The Kukis and the Nagas have been at loggerheads for long and in the early 1990s, had engaged in a long and bloody feud that cost hundreds of lives.
Ibobi’s proposal was met with strong opposition from the Nagas, who consider the Kukis to be settlers in their (the Nagas’) homeland. The Nagas, opposed as they are to the Meiteis who dominate the state administration and the state’s politics (since they form 63 per cent of the state’s population), interpreted the move to create two new districts from their ‘homeland’ as an attempt to divide them.
The Nagas, under the banner of the United Naga Council, which is widely believed to be affiliated to the Thuingaleng Muivah-led faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), announced a blockade of the two national highways if the decision to create the two new districts was not reversed. Blockades are nothing new for Manipur; the Nagas have often held the state to ransom through such blockades that have been deemed illegal by various high courts and the Supreme Court. The Meiteis, always at the receiving end of such blockades, seemed to have reached the end of their tether.
Ibobi, sensing that he could make a huge lot of political capital from the emerging crisis, announced the creation of not two, but seven new districts on 9 December. The Nagas, as Ibobi expected them to, intensified the stir. Earlier, just after he had announced the proposal to form the two districts, he had flown to Manipur’s northeastern Ukhrul district on 24 October. Suspected NSCN militants reportedly fired at the helicopter just as he was alighting from it. He escaped unhurt.
This was when Ibobi’s, and by extension the Congress’, political fortunes started changing. The attack garnered a lot of sympathy for Ibobi. But intelligence reports have it that Ibobi stage-managed the attack. This was confirmed later to Swarajya by a top army officer posted in Imphal. The blockade turned Meitei and Kuki opinion in Ibobi’s favour. As the blockade intensified, so did public opinion in the Imphal Valley and among the Kukis firm up in Ibobi’s favour.
Ibobi outsmarted the BJP and the Union Government by blaming the Centre for not providing enough paramilitary forces to clear the blockade. He kept repeating this blatant lie, and people in Imphal Valley believed him. The fact was that enough paramilitary forces – the Assam Rifles, India Reserve Battalions, BSF and CRPF – are available on the ground in Manipur. “The state government has to put in a request for these forces. Ibobi never did that and kept on blaming the Union Government for not providing forces. The Union Government cannot act unilaterally and send troops to clear the blockade since law and order is a state subject,” said a Union Ministry of Home Affairs officer.
But this message – that the Centre could not act on its own to clear the Naga blockade and that enough forces were available in Manipur but the state government was not requisitioning them– was not put across effectively to the people in Imphal Valley. “The false narrative scripted by Ibobi gained credence and he successfully portrayed himself as the victim of New Delhi’s apathy as well as of Naga ire. We failed to effectively convey to the people that the Union Home Ministry had written to the state government offering as much force as is required to crush the blockade,” said a BJP leader.
The BJP’s alliance with the ruling Naga People's Front (NPF) in Nagaland (the BJP is a junior partner of the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland government in Nagaland and the NPF is a constituent of the BJP’s North East Democratic Alliance) had also severely harmed the BJP in Manipur. The NPF is perceived in Manipur to be having close links with the NSCN, which is backing the blockade. The BJP failed to effectively convey the message that its alliance with the NPF is limited to only Nagaland.
Also, the BJP is a severely divided house in Manipur. Factional feuds and a game of oneupmanship among the top leadership in the state has severely dented its image. The state BJP chief, K Bhabananda Singh, is from the RSS and enjoys a sterling reputation and a clean image, but has little idea of realpolitik. Ibobi has managed to buy out some senior BJP leaders.
Add to this the fact that BJP leaders and even Union ministers, who fly into the state have little or no idea of the internal dynamics of Manipur. They do not understand that assuaging Meitei sentiments holds the key to power in the state. That’s because 40 of the state’s 60 assembly constituencies are in Imphal Valley. Any party that wins a majority of these seats, as well as the six-odd constituencies where the Kukis (who have no love lost for the Nagas) are a deciding factor, can cruise to a victory in the state polls. BJP’s central leaders and Union ministers who have been undertaking whirlwind visits to Manipur have little understanding of this, as well as the complex tribal and political equations in the state. As a result, they have been making statements that have harmed the BJP.
Just to cite an example, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, flew in to Imphal on 23 December, met Ibobi and addressed the media after that. While making all the right noises about the state government having the primary responsibility of breaking the blockade and the Centre’s willingness to provide as many troops as the state requests for, Rijiju also said that the Ministry of Home Affairs has no information on NSCN activities in Manipur. There are voluminous reports compiled by state and central intelligence agencies as well as the army and paramilitary forces detailing NSCN’s activities in Manipur. But by denying these, Rijiju conveyed the impression that the BJP was trying to protect the NSCN, which is backing the blockade.
All, however, is not lost. The BJP can still put its house in order in Manipur. And it would not be a tough task to counter Ibobi’s false narrative that has pitched him as a saviour of the Meiteis. The Union Government, with all the resources at its command, can easily expose the sinister game Ibobi has played in encouraging the blockade and then doing nothing to remove it by force if need be. His monumental acts of misgovernance and corruption can be easily exposed. And the BJP in Manipur desperately needs to craft a strategy with the help of politically savvy people.
One of the persons whose talents the BJP can easily tap is North East Democratic Alliance convenor and Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. He has been in the Congress and knows the inner machinations of that party well enough to counter them effectively. Sarma played a major role in the BJP’s victory on Assam last year. He is perhaps the only BJP leader from outside Manipur who knows Manipur and its politicians well. Sarma is also the only BJP leader who can match Ibobi’s cunning and political acumen. The party has to utilise Sarma’s considerable talents and give him a free hand in crafting the party’s electoral strategy in Manipur. Then, and only then, can the BJP hope to win this northeastern state.