2017 will witness the most polarised election in Manipur

File photo of Imphal, Manipur (Source: Wikipedia Commons) Photograph:( Others )

WION Shillong, Meghalaya, India Mar 08, 2017, 10.39 AM (IST) T.T. Haokip

The first phase poll in Manipur, held on March 4, 2017, sealed the fate of candidates in 38 Assembly segments. And now all eyes are on March 8 i.e today when the remaining 22 Assembly constituencies are witnessing the exercise in the second and final phase. By March 11, the voters will know the newly elected 60 members of the 11th Manipur Legislative Assembly. Whether Congress returns to power for the fourth consecutive term or BJP forms another government after Assam and Arunachal in Northeast India will be known on or before March 18.

Major Issues

Perhaps Manipur is the only state in northeast India, where different communities are not united on any single issue--before, during and after elections. Vital issues such as corruption, good governance, infrastructure, human rights violation, employment, water supply and communications, etc. are generally pushed to the backburner and is overshadowed by emotive issues. As expected, the issues of framework agreement, territorial integrity, economic blockade and creation of new districts have emerged as the central issues of the 11th Manipur Legislative Assembly election. However, even on these emotive issues, the views and strategies of parties and communities differ.

Manipur’s territorial integrity is sacrosanct to the Meiteis. To them, nothing is more important than protecting the territorial integrity of the state. The majority Meiteis in the valley, who almost deserted Okram Ibobi Singh and the Congress party at one point of time, are now changing their minds because of the non-disclosure of contents of the Framework Agreement by the BJP and the economic blockade imposed by the Nagas since the midnight of October 31, 2015. The economic blockade affects people from the valley more than the people in the hills.

For the Nagas, their ancestral land issue is non-negotiable and thus opposes the newly created districts. The United Nagaland Council (UNC) and NSCN (IM), which can influence about 10 Assembly segments in the hills are openly supporting the Nagaland-based Naga People’s Front (NPF). The last 2012 election saw four NPF MLAs getting elected.

Two vital issues for the Kukis are the newly created districts and the ongoing political dialogue with the Centre on Kuki political issues. While the United People's Front (UPF) is closer to BJP so as to continue the political dialogue, Kuki National Organisation (KNO) is supportive of Congress for creating new districts in Kuki areas. Both KNO and UPF control about 10 Assembly segments in the hills.

The two main contenders, Congress and BJP, also have different approaches although both parties have pledged to safeguard the territorial integrity of Manipur. While BJP assures that the Framework Agreement will not affect Manipur’s integrity, the Congress Party questions as to why BJP should continue to keep it a closely guarded secret if it does not contain anything inimical to the interests of Manipur. While BJP focuses on the 15 years of rampant corruption and bad governance under Congress rule, the Congress harps on the dangers that the BJP poses to the territorial integrity and existence of Manipur. Many civil society groups in Manipur have been campaigning to elicit the contents and other details of the agreement. They are not satisfied with verbal assurance from the Prime Minister.

The violent protests against the introduction of three Bills in the state Assembly - resulting in the death of 9 persons - is still fresh in the minds of the voters of Churachandpur. Public anger against the Congress is so deep that some Congress MLAs were compelled to join the BJP just few months before the election. Had it not been for the creation of new districts, fate of the Congress candidates in Churachandpur and Pherzawl districts would have been sealed much before the elections.

Comparison with previous elections

Unlike the previous elections, particularly the 2012 Assembly elections, when the opposition parties were in disarray and BJP did not win even a single seat, this time around, the fight is mainly between the Congress and BJP. Today, BJP’s strength has increased in Manipur. From a zero entity it has become a serious contender. However, lack of good leadership, mismanagement in the distribution of tickets and the “supposedly close and secret relations and understanding with the NPF” are likely to have negative consequences for the party in the valley and some hill Assembly segments.

The 2017 election will go down in the electoral history of Manipur as the most polarised election as the three major communities - Kukis, Meiteis and Nagas - do not see eye to eye on most issues confronting the state. Though it is difficult to predict the outcome of the elections, it is expected to be along ethnic lines.

What is conspicuous by its absence, is the infamous Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) 1958 in BJP’s manifesto, although the Congress mentions it in its manifesto. Surprisingly, AFSPA seems to be of no concern to the voters. Another significant departure from the past is that for the first time in Manipur, 16 polling booths (10 in Imphal West and six in Bishnupur) were exclusively manned by women polling personnel.

Expectations

Will there be a positive change after a new government comes in? 

Possibly not. One thing is for certain, that nothing much is likely to change. Immediate concern and expectation of the common people, both from the hills and valley from the new government would be putting an end to the ongoing economic blockade. The common fear of post-poll violence, like it has happened before, may have a dampening effect. As usual, voters will perhaps have to console themselves by swallowing the hard truth that political parties seldom fulfill their electoral promises . 

Election is often called the biggest festival of democracy. One wonders if it actually is so.
 

T.T. Haokip

T.T. Haokip is professor of Political Science at North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. He is an expert on state politics of northeast India.