Assembly Elections

Manipur Assembly elections: Multi-cornered contest

Print edition : February 11, 2022

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chief Minister N. Biren Singh during the inauguration and foundation stone laying ceremony of 22 development projects for Manipur, in Imphal on January 4. Photo: PTI

Former Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh with Rahul Gandhi at an election rally ahead of the 2017 Assembly election. Photo: PTI

The Bharatiya Janata Party is trying to come back to power in Manipur on its own steam after a rather turbulent five years of depending on coalition partners to run the government.

In 2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged as the second largest party in Manipur. The Congress was the single largest party with 28 seats, but the BJP managed to form the government with the support of the Naga People’s Front (NPF) and the National People’s Party (NPP). It was the first government led by the saffron party in the State. As Manipur prepares to elect a new set of legislators for the next five years, the ruling party is eyeing not just another term but also a government that it can form on its own with a clear majority.

The BJP, which is contesting the election on its own despite having shared power with two allies in the past five years, has fielded candidates in all the constituencies. The election to the 60-member Assembly will be held in two phases on February 27 and March 3 and the results will be declared on March 10.

The Congress’ tally of 28 seats in 2017 was three short of the magic number 31. But Governor Najma Heptulla invited the BJP to form the government after it secured support from the NPP and the NPF and also from four other legislators including one from the Congress. N. Biren Singh, a former Congress veteran who had presided over the BJP’s impressive election performance, became Manipur’s first BJP Chief Minister. Okram Ibobi Singh’s Congress-led government had ruled the State for three consecutive terms from 2002 to 2017.

In the 2017 election, the Congress got 28 seats; the BJP, 21; the NPF, four; the NPP, four; the Lok Janshakti Party, one; the Trinamool Congress, one; and an independent candidate won a seat. The Congress’s vote share was 35.11 per cent; the BJP’s was 36.28 per cent; the NPF’s was 7.17 per cent; and the NPP’s was 5.05 per cent. In 2012, the BJP contested 19 seats but it did not win any and managed to secure only 2.12 per cent of the votes. The Congress won 42, the Trinamool Congress got seven, the NPF won four, the Manipur State Congress Party got five, while the LJP and the Nationalist Congress Party won one each.

The NPP heads a coalition government supported by the BJP in Meghalaya. The NPF recently joined the BJP-Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) coalition government in Nagaland to form an all-party government, which resulted in an opposition-less Nagaland Assembly. The BJP dumped the NPF in Nagaland ahead of the Nagaland Assembly election in 2018 and entered into a pre-election alliance with the NDPP led by Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio. The BJP constituted the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), a joint platform of the saffron party and its regional allies, in 2016. The NPP and the NPF were also founder members of the NEDA, but the BJP did not have any pre-election alliance with its regional allies in the last Assembly election in Manipur.

COVID shadow on electioneering

A fresh surge in the COVID-19 pandemic has cast a gloom over electioneering with the positivity rate rising sharply to 14.4 per cent (as on January 16). The pandemic has so far claimed 2,015 lives in the State. Until January 15, the number of people who had received the first dose of COVID-19 vaccines stood at 23,86,700, while 10,19,282 people had received the second dose. District-wise data included in an official release issued on January 15, however, showed slow pace of vaccinations in the hill districts. The tardiest record was in Ukhrul, a hill district, where only 25.61 per cent of the people had got the first dose and just 19.02 per cent had got the second dose. Imphal West district, which recorded the maximum cumulative first dose of 74.43 per cent, had administered the second dose to 58.85 per cent of the population until January 15.

Floor crossings kept the political bot boiling during the outgoing government’s tenure. Coalition constraints and disgruntlement among legislators kept the BJP busy in political manoeuvring to prevent the government from falling. The Congress, however, failed to win the numbers game in the Assembly when it got an opportunity to stake claim to form the government in 2020.

Chief Minister N. Biren Singh was able to weather the political storm triggered by the resignation of three BJP legislators and withdrawal of support by the NPP in 2020. After quitting the ruling party, the three BJP MLAs joined the Congress and reduced the BJP-led government to a minority; the NPP, too, pledged support to the Congress. The TMC legislator and the independent legislator also withdrew their support to the government, precipitating a political crisis. However, the NPP changed its mind and decided to continue as a partner in the coalition government. The government won the trust vote by a voice vote.

The change in the NPP’s position came after a party delegation led by Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, who is also the NPP’s national president, and Manipur Deputy Chief Minister Y. Joy Kumar Singh met Union Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP national president J.P. Nadda in Delhi on June 24, 2020.

The effective strength of the House for the floor test at that time reduced to 49 as the issue of disqualification of seven Congress legislators who had quit earlier and joined the BJP was pending because of court litigation. The BJP’s number reduced to 18 while the Congress claimed the support of 26 legislators (Congress-20, NPP-four, Trinamool Congress-one, Independent-one) against 23 of the ruling coalition (BJP-18, NPF-four and LJP-one). The numbers game inside the House left the Congress weaker as eight party legislators did not vote; two abstained from voting while six submitted their resignations to the Speaker ahead of the trust vote.

Go to Hill and Go to Villages Mission

The demographic compositions of the hills and the valleys and identity politics have been influencing electoral politics in the State and for the key stakeholders. The numbers that the BJP and the Congress are able to secure in the hills also hold key to power in Imphal.

Of the 60 Assembly seats, 40 are in Meitei-majority valley districts and 20 in the hill districts where Nagas and Kukis form the majority. In the last Assembly election, the Congress won 19 seats from the valley districts, while the BJP won 16. Of the 20 seats in the hill districts, the Congress won nine and the BJP five. All the four seats won by the NPF were in the hill districts. The NPP won two in the hills and two in the valley. The NPF contested in 15 seats and the NPP in 20 seats.

The BJP is pinning its hopes on the State government’s “Go to Hill” missions for improving its tally in the hill districts. Chief Minister N. Biren Singh launched Go to Hill 2.0 in September 2021 to “take governance further to the doorsteps” and said that the mission “aims to strengthen ties amongst people through rigorous development and empowering people financially in the hills”.

The BJP’s poll strategists hope that a two-cornered contest with the Congress in the valley will help the saffron party increase its tally significantly; a few more seats from the hills will fetch a comfortable majority for the party. The NPP, however, has thrown a spanner in the BJP’s game plan by planning to contest 40 seats in the State and launching a campaign against both the Congress and BJP.

Conrad Sangma said in a public speech that both the Congress and the BJP had failed to fulfil the aspirations of the people of Manipur. He exuded confidence that the NPP would emerge as the single largest party.

Pradip Phanjoubam, noted political commentator, author and founder editor of Imphal Review of Arts and Politics, told Frontline: “Unemployment, poverty alleviation, etc. are important, but elections are a carnival and being the best circus master also will matter. NPP will be a key player. Its spirits are high in the anticipation of a hung Assembly, so it can bargain for its pound of flesh with the front runner which comes out on top but short of single majority.”

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, was pushed to the centre of the political discourse when the State government issued the notification for extending the Act for the entire State excluding the Imphal municipality areas for a year.

The intensified campaign in Nagaland and in Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur seeking repeal of the AFPSA following the massacre of innocent civilians by the Army’s 21 Para Commando unit in Oting village of Nagaland’s Mon district in a botched counter-insurgency operation found an echo in other areas of the State.

The Congress has promised to remove the Disturbed Area tag and move towards repealing the AFSPA if it returns to power. The NPF and the NPP are also demanding repeal of the Act from the entire north-eastern region. BJP legislators in Nagaland backed the resolution that the Nagaland Assembly passed unanimously on December 20, 2021, to press for the repeal of the AFSPA. The BJP’s spin doctors have a tricky task at hand to prevent the campaign on the issue from snowballing into a major election issue in Naga-inhabited areas if not the entire State. The anti-AFSPA campaign had lost steam in the State after the human rights activist Irom Sharmila ended her hunger strike seeking repeal of the AFSPA on August 9, 2016. Hers had been the world’s longest hunger strike.

With the Election Commission extending the ban on election rallies and road shows until January 23 because of rising COVID-19 infections in all the five election-bound States, door-to-door to electioneering and social media campaigns have picked up. Parties in Manipur will have to depend primarily on door-to-door campaigns in rural areas where teledensity, according to Telecom Regulatory Authority of India data, is less than 50 per cent. The teledensity in Manipur’s urban areas is 132.44 per cent. Voters in the urban constituencies are likely to witness unprecedented digital electioneering this time if the pandemic does not ease in the election run-up. Election rhetoric has been flooding the Twitter handles of political parties.

Development plank

Prime Minister Narendra Modi set the BJP’s campaign focus on “double-engine government”, “development” and “blockade free Manipur” as the party’s key poll planks. During an official visit to the State on January 4 he said: “Previous governments have wasted so much of Manipur's time, but our double-engine government has pledged not to waste even a single second of Manipur.” The harping on “double-engine” government is an attempt to use the Modi factor to sway the electorate. The party is not too sure of the efficacy of the coalition government’s performance in ensuring a clear majority. Modi inaugurated 13 development projects completed with an estimated expenditure of Rs.1,858 crore and laid the foundation stone for nine more projects worth Rs.2,950 crore. The completed and new projects are related to road infrastructure, drinking water supply, health, urban development, housing, information technology, skill development and art and culture.

Modi said in his recent speech: “Due to the continuous efforts of the double-engine government, there is no fire of extremism and insecurity in this region, but there is light of peace and development. Hundreds of youths across the north-east have given up arms and joined the mainstream of development.” He said that the current government had taken to their logical conclusion historic agreements that had been pending for decades. He added that Manipur had progressed from being a “blockade State” to one that was engaging in international trade. (He was referring to the blockades that had disrupted the supply of essentials during the previous Congress regime.) “Sixty per cent of households are getting pipeline water in Manipur, this is the benefit of a double-engine government,” he said.

The Congress has responded by running a campaign on the “BJP’s trouble-engine government” on its Twitter handle. It has been asking questions like “Where has 40 per cent of the budget (2020-21, 2021-22) gone after 50 [er cent to 60 per sent ceilings imposed by the Finance Department of Manipur in 2020?” and “Where are the 7.5 lakh jobs promised by the Chief Minister in 2017”. The Congress campaign highlights “Milestones and Achievement under the INC Government” under the hashtag “ManipurwithCongress”.

As far as the impact of digital electioneering is concerned, the BJP is much ahead of the Congress in terms of followers. The State BJP’s official Twitter handle has 62.5 thousand followers against the Congress’ 10.5 thousand.

The enforcement of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) in Manipur to exclude the State from the purview of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act pushed the State into a restricted travel regime in 2019. The Supreme Court has issued notices to the Centre and the Manipur government on a petition challenging the move. (The petition was filed by the Amra Bengali, an organisation based in West Bengal.) Pressure may be mounting on the political parties to spell out their position on the ILP issue in election manifestos.

As Manipur is poised for an intense multi-cornered election, incidents of unidentified gunmen targeting workers of political parties has mounted pressure on the Election Commission to tighten security measures to ensure a peaceful poll.