Manipur's months-long blockade eclipses other woes in election season

Indian pedestrians walk past temporary roadblocks during an ongoing economic blockade led by Naga militant groups in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur. The state has been in the middle of an economic blockade since November 1, 2016. Photograph:( Getty )

WION Imphal, Manipur, India Feb 25, 2017, 09.21 AM (IST) Kartikeya Sharma

It doesn’t take long to understand that the elections in India's northeast Manipur state is being fought solely on the issue of territorial integrity of the state. Instead of development being the salient talking point, politics in Manipur is revolving around the Naga Accord which the Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed in 2015.

Though basic issues like corruption, lack of development, extra judicial killings, ecological issues and Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) remain alive but it is the more than three-month-long blockade organised by the Naga community in Manipur that continues to remain the biggest issue.

Senior BJP leaders are quick to blame Manipur chief minister Ibobi Singh of 15 years for carving out seven new districts right before the state elections. They point out this is the reason for the intense violence that has gripped the state. 

“The message went out that the decision was political in nature. He had earlier claimed that he would carve the districts till consensus evolves and then he took the decision suo motto,” said Kiren Rejiju minister of state for home affairs.

Though Congress defended the decision as a routine administrative matter but the message which went out was that the state government undermined the concept of Nagalim (Greater Nagaland), leading to unrest in Naga-dominated Manipuri areas. 

The result of the decision was a massive blockade which threw life out of gear in Manipur. While Manipur chief minister blamed the BJP-led federal government for inadequate support, the BJP blamed the Congress for fishing in troubled waters.

“The decision to carve out the district was an administrative matter but the Centre must show us the Naga draft. It is the silence on this issue which has created so much anxiety in the state,” said senior Congress leader Imran ul Kidwai in Imphal. 

The accord which was signed in 2015 has not been made public owing to security issues. It is this opaqueness that has vexed the average Manipuri though BJP claims that not an iota of land would be ceded and territorial compromise is a political jumla.

“There is no mention of Manipur in the accord. I can vouch for it. There is no compromise on territory,” said BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, who is in-charge of India's northeast.

The gravity of the situation has even coerced Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to publically assert that territorial integrity of Manipur would not be tampered with.

The campaign acoustics of the two national parties have varied as well.

Congress' Ibobi Singh is overseeing a low-profile campaign whereas BJP has gone in the opposite direction.

BJP’s campaign is high-pitched, with senior leaders campaigning in Imphal. BJP also doesn’t have a chief ministerial face. It feels content in projecting Modi as the face of its campaign.

It has also taken up the sensitive issue of extrajudicial killings in the restive state. The party has promised that people responsible would be brought to book.

“We have made blockade an issue because it is being used politically by the Congress,” said Jitendra Singh, minister of state in Prime Minister’s office.  

BJP wants to build this narrative of blockades and lack of development without getting into the Naga issue directly. Congress differs. Imran Kidwai says that Manipur has witness an all-round development in the state under their tenure.

Though what is surprising is that Iron Sharmila who fought several federal governments on AFSPA and became a prominent public figure from Manipur has not been able to leverage her reputation in the political domain. Her cash-strapped campaign has remained subdued even though the draconian army law continues to remain in place in several parts of the state.

AFSPA is special powers granted by the Indian parliament to the armed forces to maintain or restore normalcy in "troubled areas".

Certain issues which are ecological in nature like health of Loktak lake -- India’s biggest fresh water lake -- has come into prominence like a metaphor. “More money we sent to clean the river, the dirtier it became,” said federal government's Jitendra Singh. 

But why so much of Manipur in public discourse?

It is because of the importance the RSS, or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh -- the parent organisation of BJP -- puts on the frontier regions of the country.

It is this reason why both Kashmir and the Northeast are being personally handled by Ram Madhav, who was inducted into BJP from RSS before Lok Sabha elections in 2014.

Poll victories in Kashmir and Assam gave legitimacy to BJP's status of being a pan-India party.

Just like the Karnataka victory in 2008 fanned BJP's presence in South India, a victory in Manipur would consolidate its footprint in the Northeast.

“Northeast is a priority for us and we will take this fight to every state,” said Assam's finance minister Jimanta Biswa Sarma, who played the most crucial role in bringing BJP into power in Assam. 

Manipur will go to polls on March 4 and March 8.