The battle lines have been drawn for the two-phase election to the 60-member Manipur Assembly with the political parties announcing their lists of candidates and forging alliances. The election is scheduled to be held on February 27 and March 3. Campaigning has picked up, with the Election Commission allowing participation of up to 1,000 people in public rallies and 20 for door-to-door campaigns.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has announced its candidates for all the 60 seats in a single list, putting to rest speculation of any alliance with its two coalition partners—the National People’s Party (NPP) and Naga People’s Front (NPF). While the BJP aspires to secure an absolute majority, its allies are pinning their hopes on a fractured mandate for the fulfilment of their aspiration of remaining kingmakers for another term. This has kept the possible post-election permutations and combinations of alliances at the centre of the electoral discourse along with issues pushed by political parties and candidates.
The opposition Congress has entered into an alliance with five Left and democratic parties, the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the Forward Bloc and the Janata Dal (Secular). Leaders of the six parties announced the formation of the pre-election alliance to defeat the BJP, at a joint press conference held at the office of the Manipur Pradesh Congress Committee on January 27.
The BJP list includes the names of 11 Congress legislators, who had quit to join the saffron party. This led to protests by supporters of ticket aspirants in some of the constituencies and a spate of resignations and defections. Party hopping continued. Some BJP hopefuls who were denied the party ticket have been fielded by the Congress-led alliance. The Congress nominated Pukhrem Saratchandra Singh, the BJP legislator from Moirang constituency, who joined the Congress after he was denied the party ticket. The BJP list excludes three sitting legislators, including Saratchandra Singh.
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The Congress has announced the names of 54 candidates—40 in the first list, 10 in the second and 4 in the third. The CPI has so far nominated two candidates. The other parties in the Congress coalition have not announced the names of their candidates. The candidates nominated by the CPI and the Congress will be locked in a “friendly contest” in two constituencies.
In 2007, the Congress won 30 seats and was one seat short of the magic number to form the government. The CPI, which won four seats, joined the Congress-led Secular Progressive Front government. The Left party contested 24 seats in 2012 and 6 seats in 2017 but drew a blank. The vote share of the party declined from 5.78 in 2007 to 0.74 in 2017. The Left party, however, polled 1,33,813 votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha election in the Inner Manipur constituency. The BJP won the seat. It polled 2,63,632 votes against the Congress’ 2,45,877 votes. Inner Manipur has 32 Assembly segments in valley districts. The valley districts account for 40 Assembly seats.
Prominent names in the candidates’ lists include incumbent Chief Minister N. Biren Singh and his Cabinet colleagues, and former Chief Minister and veteran Congress leader Okram Ibobi Singh and his former ministerial colleagues. Ibobi Singh was Chief Minister for three consecutive terms.
Immediately after the BJP announced its list, Biren Singh tweeted: “We are confident that the party is coming back to power with absolute majority to serve the people again.”
Both the BJP and the Congress have high stakes in 38 constituencies that go to the polls in the first phase on February 27. In the previous election, the BJP won 18 of the 38 seats, Congress 16, the NPP 2 and the Trinamool Congress and the Lok Jana Sakti Party 1 each. Elections for the remaining 22 constituencies will be held in the second phase on March 3. The Congress won 12 of the 22 seats in 2017, BJP won 3, the NPF 4, the NPP 2, and an independent candidate was elected from 1 constituency.
The NPP has kept its post-election options open but has kept its cards close to its chest as it is eying a larger piece of the power pie. The party has so far released two lists of 33 candidates. The Janata Dal (United) has announced a list of 36 candidates, which includes two sitting BJP legislators and several former legislators.
The NPF has decided to field its candidates in 10 of the 11 constituencies with a Naga majority in the hills. The NPF handed over the ticket to the nominated candidates at the party headquarters in Kohima, the capital city of Nagaland. It has renominated its four sitting legislators. Speaking at the ticket distribution event, T.R. Zeiliang, former Nagaland Chief Minister and leader of the NPF Legislature Party in the Nagaland Assembly, expressed confidence that his party would play the role of a kingmaker in Manipur this time too.
NPF president Dr Shürhozelie Liezietsu, speaking at the event, said that “the NPF is deeply rooted in the unique history of the Naga people and was founded to safeguard the interest of the Nagas”.
The NPF entered Manipur’s electoral politics in 2012 and won four seats that year. The tally remained unchanged in the 2017 election, but a fractured verdict changed its political fortunes as it played the kingmaker. In 2019, the NPF won the Outer Manipur Lok Sabha constituency, which has 28 Assembly segments (20 Assembly segments in hill districts and eight in valley districts). The BJP won Inner Manipur, the other Lok Sabha constituency in the State. The Congress had won both seats in 2014.
Manipur and Naga politics
Electoral politics in Manipur also point to the likely political developments in neighbouring Nagaland where the Assembly election will be held next year. Apart from finalising the candidates’ list for Manipur, the NPF Working Committee decided to extend an invitation to Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphu Rio and all the legislators of the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) to join hands with the NPF. The Front has said that it was the desire of all Naga people that the NPF and the NDPP should come together, triggering speculation of a possible merger of the two parties. Rio heads the NDPP-BJP coalition government. The NPF joined it recently to create an “all-party government” in Nagaland. Rio led the NPF campaign in Manipur for the 2012 Assembly election to push the message that the time had come to integrate politically, culturally, and economically as one people, stressing that that was the only way all Nagas could be integrated physically. Rio joined the NDPP in 2018 ahead of the Assembly election in Nagaland. The NDPP was formed following a split in the NPF in 2017. There has been no response to the NPF proposal from the NDPP or Rio.
The issue of integration of all Naga-inhabited areas in Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh has been one of the contentious issues in peace negotiations between the Central government and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah). The peace talks reached a deadlock with the NSCN(I-M) ruling out a peace accord without a separate flag and separate constitution for Nagas.
The hill districts in Manipur account for 90 per cent of the total geographical area of the State with a population density of 61 per square kilometre. The valley districts with 10 per cent of the total geographical area has a population density of 730 per square kilometre.
Meanwhile, the Manipur Congress launched its election manifesto containing 30 key assurances at the Congress Bhawan in Imphal on February 4. The party has promised to repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958, ensure one-third reservation for women in all government jobs, create 50,000 new jobs every year for youth, and look at the possibility of creating a Manipur Regiment. Jairam Ramesh, the party’s senior election observer for Manipur, said the manifesto was about “survival and revival” of Manipur, and “survival & revival of the democracy, its people and economy”.
Ibobi Singh, who leads the Congress campaign, alleged that the BJP-led governments at the Centre and in Manipur were only good at delivering empty promises. Releasing “a report card of five years of BJP misrule in Manipur”, the MPCC president N. Loken claimed that while the government in the State stood tall for “developed” Manipur, the BJP government delivered unfulfilled promises.
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The BJP’s electoral campaign of “double-engine government” puts the spotlight on various development indicators. The Economic Survey, Manipur, 2021-22, data state that “as far as State’s own revenue is concerned, Manipur’s contribution is very low”. The tax and non-tax revenue raised by the Government of Manipur constitutes only 8.97 per cent and 1.17 per cent respectively of revenue receipts. The major share of the State’s revenue comes from grants-in-aid from the Centre (60.75 per cent) and the share in Central taxes (29.11 per cent), according to the Survey.
While the BJP is harping on the “go to hills mission” launched immediately after the coalition assumed office in 2017, the “Manipur Vision 2030”—the State vision document for 2030—released by the Planning Department of the State government in November 2019, highlights that “high yielding and improved varieties of seeds are widely used in the valley at 96.7% as against 14.19% in the hills. Per hectare consumption of fertilizers also show wide gaps at 212.31 kg per hectare in the valley and 17.45 kg per hectare in the hills.”