Cover Story: Manipur

Tightrope walk

Print edition : March 31, 2017

Supporters of the Congress celebrating in Imphal on March 11. With 28 seats, it is still the single largest party. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Irom Sharmila, who secured only 90 votes. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

BJP supporters celebrating the party's much increased vote share and 21 seats, in Imphal on March 11. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The new government will have to balance two opposing demands that dominated the election process: to retain Manipur’s territorial integrity and to integrate all Naga-dominated areas.

A FRACTURED verdict has thrown up a hung assembly in Manipur and stopped both the major players, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), from forming the next government in the north-eastern State on their own. The Naga People’s Front (NPF), the National People’s Party (NPP), the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and an independent candidate have emerged as kingmakers. The human rights activist Irom Sharmila Chanu, who contested against Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, got only 90 votes.

The Congress, which ruled the State for three consecutive terms, emerged as the single largest party with 28 seats, but the party fell short of the magic number by three seats in the 60-member Legislative Assembly. In 2012, the Congress won 42 seats. The BJP won 21 seats in one of the most keenly fought battles in Manipur’s electoral history. The emotive issues of “territorial integrity of Manipur” and “integration of Naga-inhabited areas” had dominated the high-pitched campaign leading up to the election.

The NPF and the NPP secured four seats each. The LJP and the Trinamool won one seat each, and the remaining seat went to an independent candidate. Of the 40 seats in the valley districts, the Congress won in 19, the BJP in 16, the Trinamool in one, the LJP in one, and the NPP in two. One seat went to the independent candidate. Of the 20 seats in the hill districts, the Congress won in nine seats, the BJP in five, the NPF in four and the NPP in two. In 2012, the Congress won 28 seats in the valley districts and 14 seats in the hill districts.

Chief Minister Ibobi Singh was among the prominent winners. He won from Thoubal by a margin of 10,470 votes, defeating his nearest rival, L. Basanta Singh, of the BJP. Other prominent winners were Deputy Chief Minister Gaikhangam from Nungba, the senior BJP leader and former Congress Minister N. Biren Singh from Heignang constituency, and the lone sitting BJP legislator Thongam Biswajit Singh from Thongju.

Irom Sharmila, who was on a hunger strike for 16 years to press for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), had floated a new political party, the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA), to participate in electoral politics. She was among the prominent losers.

Thongam Biswajit Singh from Thongju was the BJP’s only legislator in the outgoing Assembly. He had quit as a Trinamool legislator and won a byelection from the Thongju constituency on the BJP ticket. In the 2012 Assembly elections, which the Congress won with 42 seats, the BJP failed to win a single seat.

The BJP polled its highest vote share of 36.3 per cent against just 2.12 per cent vote share it had secured in 2012, which is an indication of the spectacular increase of its support base in Manipur. The Congress vote share declined to 35.1 per cent from 42.80 per cent. In 2012, the BJP contested in 19 seats. The total votes polled by the BJP this time increased to 6,01,527 from 29,663 votes polled in 2012. The Congress polled 5,81,869 votes this time against 5,92,566 votes polled last time.

Of the 11 seats in the newly created districts of Noney, Kamjong, Tengnoupal, Kakching, Pherzawl, Jiribam and Kangpokpi, the Congress won six and the BJP three, while the NPF and independents won one each. In 2012, the Congress won nine of these 11 seats. The Congress government created the new districts on December 8, 2016, by bifurcating two valley districts—Imphal East and Thoubal—and five hill districts. Four of these, Chandel, Senapati, Ukhrul and Tamenglong, are Naga-dominated. The Congress had hoped that the move would be a game changer.

The creation of these new districts prompted the United Naga Council to impose an economic blockade on National Highways 2 and 37, the two lifelines of Manipur, to press for a rollback of the decision to create the new districts. The blockade, which was started on November 1, 2016, and is still on, has choked supplies of essential commodities to the State’s valley areas, causing a shooting up of prices. The UNC alleged that the new districts were created by bifurcating the ancestral land of the Nagas without their consent. The BJP accused the Congress of inviting trouble for the people in the valley areas by creating the new districts and in its manifesto promised a “blockade-free Manipur”. Eventually, the blockade brought the two complex issues of “integration of Naga-inhabited areas” and “territorial integrity of Manipur” to the centre stage of the electoral battle. The government that comes in will be watched for how it persuades the UNC to lift the blockade.

The NPF and the BJP contested against each other. Immediately after the results were declared, however, the NPF pledged its support to “any non-Congress government in Manipur”. That did not cause any surprises in political circles, either in the State or in the region, for the party is a constituent of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) formed at the behest of the BJP. The two parties are also partners in the NPF-led ruling Democratic Alliance of Nagaland in Nagaland. The UNC supported the NPF, which contested 16 seats, but it failed to increase it tally from the four won by the party in 2012. The NPF’s prospect of winning four more seats was shattered with the BJP taking away a sizable chunk of the votes in these constituencies.

The BJP hopes to get support from the NPF and the NPP, both constituents of the NEDA, and the LJP, which is a constituent of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance at the Centre. But even with the support of these parties, the support of either the Trinamool or the independent legislator will be not just critical to the formation of a BJP-led coalition government but also for the continuation of such a government with a simple majority. On the other hand, the numbers of the Congress, the Trinamool and the independent legislator add up to just 30. In the event of the BJP not being able to cobble up the numbers to form the government, or in the eventuality of its failing a floor test, the Congress will need the support of the NPP legislators, besides that of the Trinamool and independent legislators. The Congress opened channels with NPP legislators even though the NPP is a constituent of the NEDA. The party was formed in Manipur, but it was launched nationally by the former Lok Sabha Speaker late P.A. Sangma, in 2013. The NPP has two legislators in the 60-member Assembly in Meghalaya, which will be going to the polls in 2018. The NPP’s performance in Manipur has come as a boost for the party in Meghalaya.

Question of political stability

The split verdict poses challenges to political stability in the State for the next five years, with smaller parties having emerged as kingmakers. These parties will enjoy huge bargaining power. As the size of the Ministry will be limited to 12, including the Chief Minister, the smaller parties will be able to extract greater privileges in a government led by the BJP, which has only 21 legislators in the new Assembly. On the other hand, the BJP, with a smaller tally, will have fewer legislators outside the Ministry and as such will have a reduced risk of rebellion inside the party if it forms the government. If the Congress forms the government, it will have quite a few MLAs whom it will be constrained to deny ministerial berths and hence will be vulnerable to dissidence. Governments in other States of the region have faced this problem. On the other hand, a BJP-led government will face tough challenges over the issue of “territorial integrity of Manipur” vis-a-vis the issue of “integration of Naga-inhabited areas” as the NPF cannot be expected to climb down from the position announced in its election manifesto “to work for unity and integrity of the people by integrating all contiguous Naga-inhabited areas under one administrative roof and also to provide protection to all the ethnic groups who are indigenous inhabitants of all Naga inhabited areas”.

The NPF also promised to “facilitate in every possible manner and push forward the peace process and the Indo-Naga political dialogue to its logical end with an acceptable and honourable solution”. The Framework Agreement signed between the Central government and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) in 2015 dominated electioneering. The BJP’s star campaigners, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, clarified that the agreement contained no clause that could threaten Manipur’s territorial integrity. (The Congress dared the BJP to make public the Framework Agreement content.) The BJP’s promise of “firm commitment to protect Manipur’s territorial integrity, culture and its people” tops the 10 action points listed in the BJP Manipur Pradesh Vision Document 2017. The NPP promised in its election manifesto to “stand for constitutional safeguard of the territorial integrity of Manipur”. The BJP will have to walk a tightrope to find a balance between keeping the promise made in the Vision Document and ensuring the continuation of the NPF’s support. Any decision by the Central government on the complex issue of “integration of Naga-inhabited areas” may have far-reaching consequences not only in Manipur but also in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh where the BJP has higher stakes.

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