Close contest

Print edition : January 27, 2012

In Manipur, the Congress hopes to win for the third time, while five opposition parties team up to unseat it.

in Imphal

Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh presenting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a painting as State Congress president Gaikhangam (right) looks on, at a rally in Imphal-RITU_RAJ_KONWAR

THE New Year dawned with election fever in the north-eastern State of Manipur. Assembly elections have been scheduled for January 28 in this insurgency-ravaged State, which is still reeling under the residual impact of 120 days of blockades and counter-blockades along its two lifelines National Highways 39 and 53.

Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh of the Congress is aiming to script history with a hat-trick. In 2007, he became the first Chief Minister of the State to have completed a full five-year term. The second consecutive five-year term will now help him and the ruling party to showcase political stability as a significant achievement in the past 10 years. Five opposition parties, meanwhile, have teamed up in a bid to unseat the ruling Congress. The entry of the Naga People's Front (NPF), the ruling party in the neighbouring State of Nagaland, into electoral politics in Manipur has also raised the political temperature.

In 2007, the Congress emerged as the single largest party in Manipur by winning 30 seats, one short of an absolute majority in the 60-member Legislative Assembly. It formed a Secular Progressive Front (SPF) coalition government with the Communist Party of India (CPI), which won four seats. The Manipur People's Party (MPP) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) had five seats each, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the National People's Party three each, and independents 10. The independents included six candidates backed by the United Naga Council (UNC). The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won four seats in 2002, drew a blank in 2007.

The Congress later added one more to its tally in a byelection. The effective strength of the MPP, a regional party, is only three in the outgoing Assembly after two of its MLAs quit the party.

The MPP, the RJD, the NCP, the Janata Dal (United) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have forged an alliance this time, the People's Democratic Front (PDF). The RJD joined the opposition bandwagon after withdrawing the outside support it had lent to the SPF government. The CPI, which was a coalition partner of the Congress, will contest on its own. The MPP has reached an understanding for seat adjustment with the BJP in constituencies where its PDF partners do not have candidates. The Assembly elections in Manipur will perhaps be a testing ground for such an alliance outside an alliance meant to check the splitting of non-Congress votes.

A keen contest between the ruling party and the opposition combine is on the cards in 15 urban constituencies in the valley areas, which felt the maximum impact of the blockades. The Sadar Hills Districthood Demand Committee (SHDDC) imposed a blockade from the midnight of July 31, 2011, to press for its demand for a separate Sadar Hills district, carved out of Senapati district. The SHDDC lifted the blockade after 91 days following the signing of a memorandum with the Ibobi Singh government. Meanwhile, the UNC, which opposed the SHDDC's demand, called a counter-blockade on August 21, 2011. This continued for 100 days, until it was lifted ahead of the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi to Manipur on December 3, 2011. The two blockades resulted in the disruption of supply of essential commodities, and black marketeers and hoarders had a field day.

The NPF's moves are being watched keenly following its decision to join the electoral fray. It has decided to field 14 candidates. The party is counting on the support enjoyed by the UNC. In the 2007 Assembly elections, of the 11 Naga-dominated constituencies, six seats were won by independent candidates backed by the UNC, which had integration of the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur with Nagaland as its main poll plank. This time the UNC has decided to back NPF candidates. The Naga-dominated constituencies are spread across the four hill districts of Ukhrul, Senapati, Tamenglong and Chandel.

NPF president Dr Shurhozelie Liezietsu said the forthcoming Assembly elections would be a referendum on whether Nagas wanted to live united as a family. Shurhozelie, who is also Nagaland's Minister of Urban Development and Higher and Technical Education, said that the election was an opportunity for the Nagas in Manipur to decide the matter. He, however, said that the primary agenda of the NPF was to defeat the incumbent Congress party. Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio has been projected as the star campaigner for the party in the Manipur Assembly elections.

The presence of the NPF as a strong contender will keep alive the larger issue of the territorial integrity of Manipur vis-a-vis the campaign of Naga bodies for the integration of the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh with Nagaland. It will be interesting to watch how far the voters are influenced by such issues in Assembly elections when weighed against local factors. The election outcome will also indicate whether the development plank of the ruling party will have an edge over the emotive appeal of the NPF.

Congress' strategy

The Congress hopes to reap dividends from the strategy it adopted for the development of hill areas, which account for 20 of the 60 seats. Last time, the Congress won six seats in the hill areas, including two Naga-dominated constituencies. The Ibobi Singh government also succeeded in holding elections to the Autonomous District Council (ADC) in the hill districts in 2010. The ADC elections were held after a gap of 20 years and they brought an end to the governance in the hill areas by bureaucrats. The Congress hopes that in view of the ADC elections the hill constituencies will vote in favour of the party this time.

The All Naga Students' Association, Manipur (ANSAM) had imposed a 68-day economic blockade to oppose the holding of the ADC elections. Fresh trouble cropped up when Thuingaleng Muivah, general secretary of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), conveyed to the Government of India that he wanted to visit his birthplace, Somdal, in Ukhrul district of Manipur. Ibobi Singh refused to allow Muivah to enter Manipur. He succeeded in impressing upon the Central leaders that Muivah's visit would create law-and-order problems and trigger ethnic tensions.

If the NPF's performance is going to indicate the future of the Naga regional party, the elections will also be an acid test for the MPP, which hopes to revive itself. Election watchers say that smaller parties such as the RJD and the NCP can hope to gain marginally from the possible losses of both the Congress and the MPP, particularly in the valley constituencies. The RJD gained a foothold in the State in 2007 by winning three seats. Political observers feel the dark horse in the race this time is the Trinamool Congress.

The key plank for the opposition parties is corruption and misrule of the Congress-led coalition government. However, they will have a tough task taking their campaign ahead effectively in rural areas where the government has constructed roads and bridges and initiated other development works.

On his visit to the State in December, the Prime Minister pre-empted the opposition strategy by reeling off development statistics. The funds to be devolved to the State under the Thirteenth Finance Commission for 2010-15 is expected to be about Rs.13,600 crore, which is more than double the amount given for 2005-10. Manipur's Plan outlay for the current year is Rs.3,210 crore, which is more than three times the Plan outlay for the year 2005-06, the Prime Minister said at a public meeting in Imphal. He added that over the last five years, the UPA government at the Centre had worked closely with the Manipur government.

He inaugurated the new secretariat complex and the High Court complex as part of the State capital project. He announced that an oil depot taken up for construction at Malom would work as a road-fed depot until the work of a railway line up to Imphal was completed. He also announced that the capacity of the liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) bottling plant at Sekmai would be doubled to 1,200 MT. This will help in maintaining a regular supply of petrol, diesel, kerosene and LPG to the people of Manipur. The ruling Congress is likely to showcase these announcements to counter the opposition campaign, particularly on the issue of the blockades.

Campaign managers and spin doctors in both the ruling party and opposition camps are busy fine-tuning their strategies. Indications are that Manipur will witness an interesting and close battle this time.

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