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Clean sweep

Published : Apr 06, 2012 00:00 IST

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The Congress wins a thumping majority to rule Manipur for a third consecutive term.

THE Congress and, more specifically, two-time Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, have performed a hat-trick in Manipur. The party, leading the Secular Progressive Front (SPF), secured a thumping mandate in the Assembly elections held on January 28 to rule the north-eastern State for a third consecutive term. Ibobi Singh, who scripted the party's victory, has created history yet again by becoming the first person to be elected Chief Minister of Manipur three times in a row. In 2007, Ibobi Singh became the first Chief Minister in the State to complete a five-year term.

The Congress won 42 seats in the 60-member Assembly, more than a two-thirds majority. The dark horse in this election was the Trinamool Congress. The party won seven seats and emerged as the second largest party, followed by the Manipur State Congress Party (MSCP) with five seats. The Naga People's Front (NPF), the ruling party of the neighbouring State of Nagaland, won four seats in its debut to become the first regional party in the north-east to have won Assembly elections in two States. The Lok Janshakti Party won one seat. Out of the 40 seats in the four valley districts, the Congress won 28, improving on its tally of 2007 by three seats. Its remaining 14 seats came from the five hill districts, which account for 20 seats. Ibobi Singh was re-elected from Thoubal constituency with the highest margin of 15,453 votes, while Maibam Kunjo of the Trinamool Congress won with the lowest margin of 17 votes from Hiyanglam constituency.

The four opposition parties that formed a pre-election alliance called the People's Democratic Front (PDF) and adopted a Common Minimum Programme (CMP), the Manipur People's Party (MPP), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Janata Dal (United), won only one seat. The NCP's L. Ibomcha Singh, who got elected from Keishamthang constituency, will be the PDF's lone representative in the new Assembly. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had reached a seat-sharing agreement with the MPP outside the PDF's fold, too drew a blank. The verdict showed that the MPP's experiment of taking an alliance partner from outside an alliance did not work with the voters.

The Congress' landslide victory came despite a ban imposed on the ruling party by CorCom, or the Coordination Committee of seven rebel outfits the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the Revolutionary People's Front (RPF), the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), the People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), the PREPAK (Pro), the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and the United People's Party of Kangleipak (UPPK). The CorCom carried out a series of bomb and grenade attacks on the houses of Congress candidates, workers and supporters in order to enforce the ban. This affected the Congress' campaign in the valley. The attacks showed that the underground outfits had the capacity to strike at will.

Poll-watchers, however, say that the people's verdict has made the writing on the wall clear to the rebel outfits. They said that during the run-up-to the elections, the CorCom ban had overshadowed issues that were crippling the State the blockade of National Highways 39 and 53, the lifelines of Manipur, called by various organisations; the Ibobi Singh government's response to the spiralling prices and the short supply of essentials; and issues of routine governance such as health care, connectivity and electricity supply. Although the Congress' victory was a foregone conclusion, it was the SPF-II government's focus on rural connectivity that brought in the additional votes for the ruling front. The verdict indicated that when a State was bereft of basic infrastructure for decades, even the construction of minor roads in the rural areas would mean a lot.

Like his counterpart Tarun Gogoi in Assam, Ibobi Singh too focussed his government's development initiatives on rural connectivity and succeeded in reaping the dividends in the form of electoral gain. The growing number of vehicles plying between Imphal and nearby rural areas is an indicator of the transformation in people's mobility that road infrastructure has brought about in the past five years.

But this change has gone largely unnoticed by many. Earlier, people from any rural destination had to walk three to five kilometres to reach the nearest bus stop. Now, they can board a vehicle at their doorsteps, thanks to the new roads that have been laid in the villages. The development of infrastructure encouraged nationalised banks to come forward to finance the purchase of three- and four-wheeler vehicles and to expand their operations to the rural areas. Also, the operation of these vehicles has resulted in a chain of service activities such as the opening of automobile workshops and spare parts shops, and generating livelihood avenues for the rural youth. Implementation of works under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act helped the Congress reach out to a large section of rural voters. The CPI, which was a coalition partner of the SPF in its two previous terms, drew a blank this time. In 2007, the CPI won four seats. Political observers maintain that the Left parties were defeated because of the failure of their leaders to attract, and make space for, young leaders. The CPI's decision to go it alone this time did not go down well with the voters. They saw it as a move by the CPI to shrug off the responsibility for the commissions and omissions of the SPF government. The voters also seemed to disapprove of the dual position of the CPI of sharing power with the Congress in the State and at the same time remaining a strong critic of it at the Centre.

In 2007, the Congress won 30 seats, the MPP and the NCP five seats each, the United Naga Council (UNC)-backed independents six, the NPP and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) (another SPF constituent) three each, and independents four.

The Trinamool Congress' victory this time was confined to the four valley districts. Its winners included a sitting MLA representing Konthoujam constituency, the seat which the Trinamool had wrested from the Congress in a byelection earlier. The constituency-wise voting pattern indicates that the Trinamool Congress' gain was more at the cost of the PDF constituents than at the cost of the Congress. Of the seven seats it won, three were wrested from the Congress and four from the PDF (two from the MPP and two from the NCP). Besides, in a number of constituencies, the Trinamool Congress cut into the anti-Congress vote, causing the defeat of PDF candidates.

However, voters in seven constituencies saw the Trinamool as an alternative to both the Congress and the PDF. Whether the Trinamool will be able to hold on to this support base and expand it in future will depend on the future of its alliance with the Congress at the Centre and in West Bengal.

In the hills, it was a spectacular performance by the Congress. The ruling party won 14 seats in the five districts, which include the four Naga-dominated districts of Senapati, Tamenglong, Chandel and Ukhrul and the non-Naga-dominated district of Churachandpur. In 2007, the Congress had won five seats in the hills while independents backed by the UNC, the apex body of the Nagas in Manipur, won six seats. This time the UNC backed NPF candidates.

The verdict showed that apart from retaining its base in the Meitei-dominated valley, the Congress succeeded in securing the support of both Nagas and non-Nagas in the hill region. Of the 11 Naga-dominated constituencies, the Congress won in six, the NPF in four, and the MSCP one. The Congress won all the six seats in Churachandpur district. The Congress won three of the six seats in Senapati district, two of the three seats in Ukhrul, and one of the two seats in Chandel district.

Significantly, the Congress candidate, M.K. Preshow, was elected in Chingai constituency in Ukhrul district, which includes Somdal village, the birthplace of Thuingaleng Muivah, the general secretary of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah). Preshow got 9,865 votes while his nearest rival, an independent, Kashim Vashum, secured 9,050 votes and the NPF candidate finished third with 7,659 votes. The constituency witnessed re-polling in nine polling stations, including three in Somdal under heavy security. In 2010, the Ibobi Singh government rejected Muivah's wish to visit Somdal, and refused to allow him entry into Manipur although the Union Home Ministry had granted him permission. In 2007, UNC-backed candidates won all the three seats in Ukhrul district. This time the NPF, which had the backing of the UNC, managed to win only one seat, Ukhrul, that too by a slim margin of 70 votes. In Chandel district, the NPF won the Chandel constituency by a narrow margin of 166 votes.

As in the 2007 elections, this time too the issue of Naga integration dominated the campaign in the four hill districts. Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, who was the star campaigner for the NPF, harped on the issue at every election meeting in Manipur. The Congress countered the NPF campaign by focussing on development and co-existence.

The Congress also benefited from the holding of elections to the Autonomous District Councils in the hill districts after 20 years. The party justified the elections saying that the absence of elected district councils amounted to denying the hill people the right to local self-governance. Besides, development funds provided to the ADCs would remain unutilised if elections were not held, party leaders pointed out. Besides the elections to the ADCs, the inauguration of a number of development projects, including three 33/11 KVA power substations at Jessami, Tamei and Tousem, a 50-bed hospital at Senapati, a primary health centre building at Jessami, a Navodaya school building at Tamenglong, and mini-secretariats at Tamenglong and Senapati, helped the Congress convince the hill voters about its commitment to development.

With the NPF and the Congress being major stakeholders in Nagaland too, the verdict of the elections in Manipur is expected to resonate in the neighbouring State, which is going to the polls in 2013. While the NPF has made its debut in the Manipur Assembly, the Nagaland Pradesh Congress Committee (NPCC) has described the NPF's performance a backward journey to integration and claimed that the majority of the Nagas in Manipur rejected the NPF's agenda of Naga integration.

In his election speeches, Rio put forward the NPF's agenda before the voters and said that the time had come to integrate politically, culturally and economically as one people, stressing that only then can all Nagas be integrated physically.

The party can hope to gain from the role NPF MLAs will play in the days to come on the contentious issue when it goes back to voters in Nagaland for another mandate next year. Several busloads of Naga people from Manipur attended the Naga Reconciliation meeting, organised by the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR) in Dimapur in Nagaland on February 29. Five Naga underground outfits and various Naga groups and organisations came together on a common platform and reaffirmed their commitment to reconciliation. The NPF's entry into the Manipur Assembly will keep alive the issues of Manipur's territorial integrity and Naga integration.

Ibobi Singh can certainly take the credit for the Congress' electoral performance as no star campaigner came from Delhi to lead the electioneering. Although his two terms as Chief Minister provided some political stability to the State which had seen seven governments between 1990 and 2002, Ibobi Singh may find it difficult to keep the party leaders together for the simple reason that even after accommodating many aspirants in his 12-member Ministry, 30 MLAs have been left out. The next five years will see Ibobi Singh face one of the toughest stability tests, and he will have to find ways to prevent Manipur from going the Meghalaya way.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Apr 06, 2012.)

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