The Congress, which used Manipur's territorial integrity as its campaign plank, returns to power with increased strength.SUSHANTA TALUKDAR in Imphal
THE Congress returned to power in Manipur in the recent elections, winning 30 Assembly seats out of a total of 60, just one short of an absolute majority. Okram Ibobi Singh, who made history by becoming the State's first Chief Minister to complete a five-year term, has now returned for a second successive term.
The Congress has formed the government with the support of its coalition partner, the Communist Party of India (CPI), which won four seats. The two parties contested against each other and their workers clashed in several constituencies after the election results were out.
But their leaders resolved to continue with their coalition, the Secular Progressive Front (SPF), and accept the unconditional support extended by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the National People's Party (NPP), a regional party. The combined strength of these four parties now stands at 39; the effective strength of the Congress is 29 because Ibobi won from two constituencies, Khangabok and Thoubal. An upbeat Ibobi attributed his party's victory to the SPF government's success in ensuring "stability, peace and development".
The Opposition Manipur People's Party (MPP), which dreamt of wresting power from the Congress, could win only five of the 36 seats it contested while the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) improved its strength from three to five seats in the Assembly. The MPP, which banked on regionalism, succeeded in bringing into its fold two other regional parties, the Federal Party of Manipur (FPM) and the Democratic Revolutionary People's Party (DRPP). But the merger came too late to make a positive impact.
Besides, most of the 13 FPM MLAs in the previous Assembly either joined the Congress or contested as Independents as they were opposed to the merger. The two DRPP legislators had joined the Congress soon after the 2002 elections.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won four seats in the 2002 Assembly elections, drew a blank this time. The RJD won three seats, the NPP three and independents 10. Six of the winning independents were backed by the United Naga Council (UNC), the apex body of the Nagas of Manipur. The anti-defection law helped Ibobi to last a full five-year term. It was not a smooth term for the Congress-led coalition government. But the stability plank on which the Congress campaigned helped it to increase its tally to 30 from 20 in the last Assembly.
The two major issues that dominated the campaign were the integration of Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur with Nagaland, the main plank of the UNC, vis-a-vis Manipur's territorial integrity; and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA). These were issues that dominated the State's political climate in the last five years.
The 11 Naga-dominated constituencies of the State are spread in the four hill districts of Ukhrul, Senapati, Tamenglong and Chandel. Six of these were won by independent candidates backed by the UNC. However, in the remaining five seats, UNC-sponsored candidates were defeated. The verdict comes against the background of a UNC diktat to candidates who did not have its backing to withdraw from the contest in favour of "consensus" candidates. The Congress won in only two of these 11 Naga-inhabited seats, Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president Gaikhangam retaining the Nungba constituency in Tamenglong district and D.D. Thasii winning the Karong seat in Senapati district.
The UNC shortlisted 11 independent candidates from among 61, who signed a pledge before the apex Naga body on January 16 to take up the cause of Naga integration in the Assembly. Naga representatives who signed a similar pledge in 2002 "failed to perform their duty of working for the `Naga cause' and raise the issue on the floor of the House after they were elected".
In Ukhrul district, the UNC made a `sweep': the candidates it backed won all the three seats of the Naga-dominated hill district, which is also the home district of Thuingaleng Muivah, general secretary of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah), or NSCN(I-M). In Tamenglong district, however, Khangthunanang Panmei, an independent candidate who was abducted by NSCN(I-M) cadre days before the third phase of the polling and was literally forced to announce his withdrawal from the contest, won by a margin of 8,460 votes from the Tamenglong Assembly constituency, defeating the UNC-sponsored candidate and sitting MLA Samuel Jendai.
The UNC's agenda of Naga integration made the issue of Manipur's territorial integrity an important one in popular perception. The State's territorial boundary seemed to be at stake with the prospect of representatives backed by the UNC raising the issue in the Assembly. All the parties, including the Congress, made Manipur's territorial integrity a major poll plank. The verdict showed that the electorate in the valley saw the Congress as the only party that could take on the apex Naga body. The party won only five of the 19 seats in the hill constituencies, though in 2002 it won as many as 10. In spite of this setback, its overall tally increased by 10 because in the valley it won 25 seats; it had won 10 last time. In all her election rallies, Congress president Sonia Gandhi stressed that her party was committed to protecting the territorial integrity of Manipur.
On the AFSPA issue, the verdict was clear. The majority of the electorate chose to side with the ruling Congress, which adopted a middle path: that the Act would go gradually as the situation returned to normality.
The Opposition MPP made the withdrawal of the Act one of its two major poll planks and promised to adopt a resolution in the State Assembly to facilitate the Act's repeal, if voted to power. It was taken aback at not getting the mandate it expected. Incidentally, Irom Sharmila from Manipur, who has been fasting for six years demanding withdrawal of the Act, has found support from Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi.
The Congress highlighted the removal of the Disturbed Area tag from seven Assembly constituencies in the Imphal Municipality area, which renders the AFSPA ineffective in these places. It promised to do the same for the entire State as the situation improved. Immediately after being re-elected leader of the Congress Legislature Party, Ibobi, emboldened by the election verdict, said that the Act would go automatically when normalcy returned.
The election results indicated that voters were not in favour of extremist politics, though they continued to back spontaneous strikes and bandhs to protest against the alleged highhandedness of the security forces acting under the AFSPA.
Though polling was by and large peaceful, ambushes on security forces escorting poll materials and grenade attacks on the houses of candidates by underground groups spoke volumes about the latter's ability to strike despite the heavy presence of the Army and paramilitary forces and the unbridled powers given to security forces under the AFSPA. There are about 25 underground groups in Manipur.
Organisations such as the Apunba Lup, which spearheaded the anti-AFSPA movement, did not trust even those political parties that promised to withdraw the Act if they came to power. Hence the verdict of the electorate, which has gone in favour of the Congress, cannot be expected to put the lid on the anti-AFPSA movement.
None of the nine women candidates was elected. The last Assembly had a lone woman legislator, W. Leima, who won a third consecutive term in 2002 and held several portfolios in the Ibobi-led government. This time, she finished a poor third in Naoria Pakhanglakpa constituency.
Paradoxically, there is a strong women's movement in the State, where women are in the forefront of all popular movements and socio-economic activities. A few years ago, a naked protest by Manipuri women against the rape and killing of Thangjam Manorama by Assam Rifles personnel at Kangla Fort shook the nation. It also sparked off a strong civil disobedience movement in support of the demand for the withdrawal of the AFSPA.
The election verdict also reflected a sharp hill-valley divide over the issue of Naga integration in the backdrop of the ongoing peace negotiations between New Delhi and the NSCN(I-M). The Naga insurgent group has been desperately pushing its agenda of the integration of all Naga-inhabited areas. Naga civil society groups such as the UNC have been trying to use parliamentary democracy to garner support for the cause and to put pressure on the Centre.
The recent verdict was clearly not against Manipur's integrity, but the issue of Naga integration is expected to get more prominence with the six elected UNC-backed candidates floating a new political platform - the United Naga Democratic Alliance (UNDA) - to pursue the agenda of keeping the issue alive.