Shadow of blockade

Manipur faces the Assembly elections under the shadow of the economic blockade imposed by the United Naga Council invoking issues of territorial integrity and tribal identity.

Published : Feb 15, 2017 12:30 IST

Vehicles coming into Imphal from the hill districts dominated by Nagas set on fire on December 18, 2016, by protesters who are angry with the blockade.

Vehicles coming into Imphal from the hill districts dominated by Nagas set on fire on December 18, 2016, by protesters who are angry with the blockade.

ON February 7, when the Election Commission issued the notification for the first phase of the two-phase Assembly elections in Manipur, scheduled for March 4 and 8, the United Naga Council (UNC), which has been spearheading an economic blockade since November 1, 2016, announced its decision to continue its agitation until the Manipur government’s move to create seven new districts is reversed. The UNC and other organisations oppose the move, which they allege will end up appropriating Naga villages and merging them with non-Naga areas.

This means that Manipur is going to elect a new government under the shadow of the UNC-imposed economic blockade of its two lifelines, National Highways 37 and 2. The blockade is likely to influence electioneering and may even influence the election outcome. The Model Code of Conduct, which has already come into effect, prohibits both the Central and the State governments from making any commitments on rolling back the decision on new districts until the election process is over. The State is reeling under an acute shortage of essential commodities caused by the blockade.

An emergency meeting of the UNC’s presidential council held at Senapati reiterated its stance of rejecting Manipur’s decision, taken on December 8, 2016, to create seven new districts and resolved to continue the “fight against the insidious design of grabbing our land on the pretext of administrative convenience”. The meeting also resolved that the Nagas would reject and fight against any other move that might “affect our land and identity”.

The UNC meeting was convened to “critically explore” the outcome of the tripartite meeting between the Centre, the Manipur government and the UNC held in New Delhi on February 3 to end the logjam. The UNC insisted that the core issue for the tripartite dialogue was Congress Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh’s decision “without consulting the stakeholders in utter disrespect of four MoUs [memorandums of understanding] signed with Naga organisations and assurances given by the Ministry of Home Affairs”. The Manipur government pointed out the difficulty in taking up the issue for discussion by the Centre or the State government because the Model Code of Conduct had come into effect. The UNC meeting, however, insisted that “the code of conduct cannot limit the Union of India or the Governor of the State of Manipur from intervening and fulfilling their constitutional obligation to safeguard and protect the land of the tribal people as enshrined in the Constitution”. The UNC statement added: “The presidential council reaffirmed that the Nagas and their land are inseparable. The land gives us our identity, tradition and culture. In the land lies our future as a people.”

The State government described the UNC’s decision as unfortunate and appealed to the organisation to lift the blockade in the interest of the public. The government claimed that it was decided at the February 3 tripartite meeting that the issue of new districts would be taken up at the next tripartite meeting; that the government agreed to release two UNC leaders who had been arrested; and that the UNC agreed to consider lifting the blockade at its February 7 meeting.

Territorial integrity The UNC’s decision to continue its blockade and the agitation is likely to make the territorial integrity of Manipur the dominant election issue in the valley areas, which account for 40 of the State’s 60 seats. On the other hand, the issue of “Naga integration” is expected to be the key election issue in 11 Naga-dominated constituencies among the 20 constituencies in the hill areas. Nineteen of these 20 seats are reserved for the Scheduled Tribes.

The ruling Congress hopes the creation of seven new districts will fuel aspirations among not just non-Naga communities but also Nagas and thus help the party to retain its hold in the hill areas. In 2012, the Congress won 14 of the 20 hill seats, the Naga People’s Front (NPF) won four, and the Manipur State Congress Party won two.

Blame game Both the Congress and the BJP have been blaming each other for the turmoil. The BJP says the Congress government “invited trouble” by deciding to create the new districts a few months ahead of the Assembly elections and alleges that it did so for political gain.

The BJP has been trying to make corruption and poor governance the key election issues to capitalise on the anti-incumbency factor that it believes has set in after three consecutive terms of the Ibobi-led Congress government. BJP leaders have also promised a Manipur “free of bandhs and blockades” to woo voters in the valley areas. However, on the issue of Manipur’s territorial integrity, the party will find it difficult to counter the Congress campaign on the “Framework Agreement” that the Narendra Modi government signed with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah) on August 3, 2015. The NSCN(IM)’s map of “Nagalim” includes areas in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. People in these three States are, therefore, apprehensive about the “Framework Agreement” that was signed after 80 rounds of peace talks. The Congress says that the details of the agreement have not been divulged. An electoral mandate for the BJP in Manipur, it says, would amount to “tacit support” for splitting Manipur.

In June 2001, 18 people died during an uprising in Manipur triggered by the previous BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government’s agreement with the NSCN(IM) to extend the territorial limit of the ceasefire signed by New Delhi with the Naga rebel group in 1997 to all Naga-inhabited areas beyond Nagaland.

Although the BJP has been claiming that it will form the next government in the State, the party’s electoral strength so far indicates that it still has a long way to go. The party’s vote share in the 2012 Assembly elections was 2.12 per cent, against 42.80 per cent of the Congress. It did not win a single seat, whereas the Congress won 42 seats. The party position in the 2012 elections was Trinamool Congress seven, the Manipur State Congress Party (MSCP) five, the NPF four, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Lok Jan Shakti one each. The BJP failed to win a single seat.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP’s vote share jumped to 11.98 per cent, while that of the Congress declined marginally to 41.91 per cent. The Congress, however, won both the Lok Sabha seats in the State. The Communist Party of India’s (CPI) vote share increased to 14.05 per cent from 5.78 per cent in 2012; the NPF’s vote share increased to 20.01 per cent from 7.50 per cent; the NCP’s vote share declined to 4.39 per cent from 7.23 per cent; and the Trinamool’s vote share declined to 3.75 per cent from 17 per cent.

The BJP’s confidence appears to stem from the increase in its vote share in 2014, its victory in the byelections to the Thongju and Thangmeiband Assembly seats in 2015, and the defection of several Congress veterans to the BJP in 2016.

However, K. Joykishan, who won the Thangmeiband seat in a byelection in November 2015 and was one of the three members of the BJP’s election management committee, joined the Congress on December 21, 2016. Joykishan was the leader of the BJP legislature party, which had just two members. He justified his defection to the Congress saying that the BJP-led government at the Centre was indifferent to the sufferings of the people of Manipur caused by the UNC’s economic blockade.

Joykishan’s defection came just two months after Congress vice president and former Minister N. Biren quit to join the BJP. Former Minister and Congress legislator Y. Erabot joined the BJP in September 2016. More Congress leaders have since joined the BJP. But the Congress appears unfazed and insists that individuals do not matter much.

Going by the Assembly segment-wise break-up of votes polled in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Congress candidates polled the highest number of votes in 38 Assembly segments, while BJP candidates polled the highest number of votes only in three segments. BJP candidates came second in 14 segments. The CPI and the NPF secured the highest number of votes in nine segments each. The Trinamool Congress polled the highest number of votes in one segment.

The CPI, this time, has forged an alliance with the NCP, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Aam Aadmi Party, the Janata Dal (United) and the Manipur National Democratic Front. The six-party alliance of Left and democratic parties is expected to play a crucial role in tilting the power balance. The voters’ mood will be easier to gauge once the parties and candidates take the election issues to the people through their manifestos. Only then will it become clear whether the issues of Manipur’s territorial integrity and Naga integration will overshadow those of development and corruption. However, the complexities of the issues are going to make the electoral battle tougher this time, not just for the Congress but also for the BJP, which is desperate to capture power in Manipur to realise its dream of a “Congress-mukt north-east”.

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