Though it is too early to make a prediction, the impressive turnout of about 80% (as per provisional figures) in the first phase of polls to 38 of Manipur’s 60 Assembly constituencies on Saturday could just provide an edge to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP is locked in a tough contest with the Congress, which has ruled (and ruined) the state for fifteen long years. The results of this just-concluded first phase of the polls will decide who rules trouble-torn Manipur for the next five years.
Till October-end, it appeared that the BJP was all set for a smooth sail to victory. The Congress government led by the 69-year-old was widely viewed as corrupt and inefficient and was plagued by internal dissensions. Anti-incumbency was strong and all the ethnic groups in the state--the Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis--blamed Ibobi and his corrupt government for the various ills plaguing the state. The Ibobi government was also blamed for the staged encounters with captured militants of various proscribed outfits and these ‘encounter killings’ created a swell of public anger against him.
However, the wily Ibobi executed a master-stroke by announcing the of seven new districts in the state in October-end. The seven new districts were carved out of the then existing seven districts of the state. The Nagas inhabiting the hill districts of the state interpreted this move as a sinister attempt to create weaken them politically and rose in revolt. They demanded that the bifurcation of the four hills districts of, , and in which they were in either a majority or present in large numbers be rolled back.
On November 1, 2016, the powerful United Naga Council (UNC), which claims to represent all the Nagas in Manipur and is believed to be closely linked to the dominant faction of the insurgent led by , imposed an that crippled life in the Imphal Valley where the majority of the people of Manipur live. Life was after the Nagas stopped trucks carrying foodgrains, medicines, fuel and other essential commodities from reaching the Imphal Valley through National Highways 2 and 37 that run through the hills they inhabit before reaching the Imphal Valley.
But despite the tremendous hardships they faced, the who are the majority community in the state and inhabit the Imphal Valley, dropped their opposition to Ibobi and the Congress. The tide dramatically turned in Ibobi’s favour. As the sufferings of the Meiteis increased, so did their support for Ibobi (a Meitei himself) who they started looking upon as a strong defender of Meitei interests against the Nagas who want the areas they inhabit to be merged with Nagaland. For the Meiteis, the territorial integrity of Manipur is a highly emotive issue and this major issue is the principal cause for the major chasm between the Nagas and the Meiteis. The Meiteis felt that only Ibobi could stop their state from being bifurcated and could put the Nagas in their place.
Reports filed by central intelligence agencies blamed Ibobi for engineering the blockade by the UNC for his own political gains. Ibobi is also suspected to have stage-managed an on himself in Ukhrul on October 23 last year to gain public sympathy. Meiteis were further outraged by an on armed policemen in mid-December when they were on their way to Chandel to provide security to Ibobi who was to inaugurate a new district carved out of the Naga-dominated Chandel district. Ibobi is suspected to have staged this attack as well and in both of them, militants belonging to the Muivah-led NSCN were blamed by the Congress government.
Ibobi also played the victim by blaming New Delhi for the crisis caused by the UNC blockade. He repeatedly said that the Union Government was not helping the state crush the blockade. He also played on the fears of the Meiteis about Manipur’s bifurcation by saying that the NDA government in New Delhi was inclined towards the Nagas since it had signed a with the NSCN (IM) in December 2015. Ibobi hinted that this framework agreement contained a promise for Nagalim (a larger Nagaland integrating all Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh with the present state of Nagaland).
Ibobi turned the tide in his favour through lies and chicanery while the BJP watched helpless as the wind was taken out of its sails. The state unit of the BJP also suffered defections and a leadership tussle. With the Meiteis and the Kukis (who were also happy with Ibobi for acceding to their demand for creating separate districts for them) rallying behind Ibobi, there seemed little hope for the BJP which lacked state-level strategists and charismatic leaders.
But from mid-February, the BJP started stepping up its campaign against Ibobi and the Congress. An aggressive campaign launched by the party managed to deflect Ibobi’s lies that the Union Government was not helping the state in getting the blockade by the Nagas lifted. Law and order, the BJP pointed to the Meiteis, was a state subject and though the Union Government had provided adequate central paramilitary forces to Manipur to get the blockade lifted, the state was not using them. The BJP also managed to dispel fears among the Meiteis that the framework agreement with the NSCN (IM) contained a promise to integrate Naga-dominated areas of Manipur with Nagaland.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s in Imphal on February 25 and his strong speech lambasting the Congress and reassuring the people that not only is Manipur’s territorial integrity sacrosanct, but also that the debilitating economic blockade by the Nagas would be lifted within a fortnight of the BJP coming to power in the state, considerably brightened the chances of the BJP. However, it remains to be seen if the BJP’s aggressive last-minute campaign and the visits by senior party leaders, including Modi and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, have helped the party’s prospects in the state.
The first phase of polls on Saturday (March 3) will decide who will get to rule Manipur since this phase covered not only a majority of the constituencies, but also covered Meitei-dominated areas as well a few Kuki constituencies. Meiteis being the dominant community in the state, their votes decide the fortunes of the political parties. The second phase of the polls slated for March 8 will be held in Naga-dominated constituencies or seats where Nagas are a decisive factor. The Congress is not expected to win any of those seats; most will go to Independents while the BJP and the are expected to win a few each.
Though Saturday’s impressive turnout is being interpreted by both the Congress and the BJP as indicative of people coming out in large numbers to vote for their respective parties, it is likely that the BJP could have been the gainer. Large turnouts happen only when people tend to support a challenger to the incumbent; that is, when people want change. With Modi and the BJP managing to allay the apprehensions of the Meiteis and reviving the image of Ibobi and the incumbent Congress government as corrupt and inefficient, chances are that the BJP has gained an edge over the Congress. But exactly a week from now will it be clear if the this Saturday’s large turnout meant a vote for change in Manipur.
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