The insurgents' ban on Congress participation in the elections is likely to help the opposition alliance and the Naga parties.
THE run-up to the January 28 election to the 60-member Manipur Legislative Assembly witnessed a spurt in the activities of armed rebel organisations, most of them targeting the ruling Congress party. The Congress, which is hoping to return to power for the third consecutive term, faces a tough challenge in effectively reaching out to the electorate in the valley areas of the State owing to a ban imposed on it by CorCom, or 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). There have been a series of bomb and grenade attacks on the houses of Congress candidates, workers and supporters. The valley areas send 40 members to the Assembly.
Accusing the Congress of standing against the people and the freedom movement, the CorCom announced its decision to ban the party indefinitely. A statement issued by CorCom decreed that (a) no one should become a member or worker of the Congress party, (b) no one should contest in the election as a candidate of the party, (c) no election camp be set up for the party, (d) no election rally or feasting be organised, (e) no in-camera or public meeting of the party be organised, (f) no household should hoist the Congress party flag, and (g) no individual or transport association should allow its vehicles to be used by candidates of the Congress party. Anyone who acted against these restrictions would be punished, the statement warned. On January 8, the State police foiled an attempt to blow up the Congress party office with explosives.
The ban has cast a shadow over the electioneering of the ruling party even though senior Congress leaders put up a brave face and said that such bans were not new to the party and that it would face it. However, the increased security for the candidates only means that the gap between them and the electorate is widening. Some Congress leaders feel that the CorCom ban might distract the attention of some voters from other pressing issues of governance. According to political observers, the dominant issues this time are the territorial integrity of Manipur and the recurring economic blockades along National Highways 39 and 53 and the State and Central government's handling of them.
Meanwhile, campaigning by the People's Democratic Front (PDF), the pre-poll alliance of five opposition parties the Manipur People's Party (MPP), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M) is in full swing. The five parties have made seat adjustments and have also announced a Common Minimum Programme (CMP).
The CMP has helped the PDF put up a show of unity before the electorate and present an alternative agenda of governance before it. The alliance partners are hopeful that the CMP would do the trick of translating the attendance at their election rallies into votes favouring a change of governance. PDF leaders say they are confident of forming the next government in the State. They hope that the CMP will help them present themselves as a united opposition.
In the hills, too, the Congress faces the heat of electioneering by the United Naga Council (UNC) and other Naga bodies that support candidates put up by the Naga People's Front (NPF), the ruling party of the neighbouring State of Nagaland. The UNC has asked all parties except the NPF to refrain from contesting in the elections. However, the Congress has fielded candidates in all the 60 seats, including the 20 seats of the hill districts, which include 11 Naga-dominated constituencies.
In 2007, the Congress won two seats from the Naga-dominated areas and four other seats in the hills. Therefore, the party does not seem too worried about the NPF, which is contesting in 12 seats. In 2007, UNC-backed candidates won six seats from the Naga areas. Congress sources said that the ruling party was trying its best to improve its performance in the hills as it was not sure of repeating its 2007 performance in the valley.
The NPF's star campaigner and Nagaland Chief Minister, Neiphiu Rio, asserted in his election speeches that the Nagas had a future only if they were united as a family. He has also put forward the NPF's agenda before the voters that the time has come to integrate politically, culturally and economically all Nagas as one people. In 2007, the UNC's main poll plank was the integration of the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur with Nagaland.
The 2007 verdict showed that the electorate in the valley saw the Congress as the only party that could take on the apex Naga body.
However, this time even though the Congress has promised to protect the territorial integrity of Manipur, it is not able to take its campaign effectively to voters in view of the CorCom ban. Moreover, it remains to be seen if the voters this time will weigh the Congress promise on the issue with the one made by the PDF in their Common Minimum Programme.
However, poll watchers say that the results will be decided not just on macro issues alone; a number of micro issues and various local factors too have to be factored in. Much will also depend on the individual campaign by candidates highlighting issues concerning their constituencies.
How far the CorCom ban will influence the final outcome remains to be seen. Apart from the ruling party, it has certainly added to the worries of the Election Commission of India whose primary objective is to ensure free, fair and peaceful elections in the five States going to the polls.