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Assembly Elections | BJP hopes to retain Manipur, Congress pushes to regain it

Politics in Manipur revolves around the valley and the hills. Of the 60 assembly seats, 40 are in the central Imphal area and rest in the hills, with the latter having a sizeable Naga presence 

February 22, 2022 / 01:00 PM IST
 [Representational image.]

[Representational image.]

On February 28, voters in the Northeastern state of Manipur will start the exercise of electing a new government with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress offering a choice as the principal contestants for the 60-member assembly.

The state will witness polling for 38 seats in the first phase, and the rest of the 22 seats would vote on March 5, with the results coming out on March 10 along with those of assemblies in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, and Punjab.

While the general focus remains predominantly on UP and Punjab, Manipur offers an interesting study where the Congress is hoping to wrest power from the BJP after a 15-year hiatus. The BJP formed the government in 2017 after emerging as the second-largest party with 21 seats. The Congress with 28 seats could not muster support to stake claim, and the BJP managed with requisite numbers striking a post-poll arrangement with regional National Peoples' Party (NPP).

Similar to the party’s fate in Goa, the strength of the Congress in the outgoing assembly is reduced to 13, afflicted by series of defections with two senior leaders, Kakching Surachandra and Chaltonlien Amo, crossing over to the BJP last month, while Congress state unit chief Govinddas Konthoujam joining the BJP in August.

In the current electoral battle, the beleaguered Congress forces are being led by septuagenarian Okram Ibobi Singh, who helmed the government for three terms between 2002 and 2017. Ironically, internal dissension and disagreement with the then Chief Minister led to the exit of senior leaders including N Biren Singh who currently heads the BJP government. The spate of exits continued, leading to erosion in the Congress’ strength in the assembly.

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Taking a leaf from its new practice in Goa, in Manipur too the Congress chaperoned its candidates to different places of worship — a church, a temple, and a mosque — to pledge not to desert the party under any circumstances.

Interestingly, Congress candidates also trooped into Kangla Fort, the symbol of pride for the denizens of the state. It may be recalled that intense protests over the fort remaining under control of the Assam Rifles along with demand for repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was an emotive issue for the people in the state. In November 2004, in a bid to assuage such sentiments, the Assam Rifles vacated the fort and transferred to the state. Then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh travelled to Imphal city for the handing over event, and the Ibobi Singh government lifted the Act from the municipal limits of the capital city.

Now in its manifesto for the 2022 assembly elections, the Congress has promised to repeal AFSPA among the 30 promises it made to the 2 million voters if the party gets the mandate to govern once again. On the other hand, the BJP has remained silent on AFSPA.

The BJP government under Biren Singh faced serious turbulence after four NPP legislators quit the alliance and found three BJP MLAs who too withdrew support. The Congress was readying itself to stake claim when intervention from the BJP’s central leadership averted the situation going out of hand.

NPP leader Yumnam Joy Kumar is the Deputy Chief Minister and the party boasts of influence both in the Imphal valley and hills. The party too advocates repeal of AFSPA. The NPP under its President and Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma is hoping to expand his party’s presence across the Northeast.

Politics in Manipur revolves around the valley and the hills. Of the 60 assembly seats, 40 are in the central Imphal area and rest in the hills, with the latter having a sizeable Naga presence. Little wonder that the Naga Peoples Front (NPF), which enjoys a base in the hills, hopes to recapture its four-seat victory in the 2017 election. The party got 7.17 percent of the votes as against 5.05 percent by the NPP, for an equal share of four assembly seats.

There are some other parties, including the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Janata Dal (Unite), the Shiv Sena, and the Samata Party founded by George Fernandes, in the political fray. Incidentally in 2001, the party’s Radhabinod Koijam became the Chief Minister before the state headed for President’s Rule.

The BJP is seeking endorsement of the development works undertaken during its five-year tenure. The government restored peace and ended the 2016 blockade witnessed during the tenure of the last Congress government. The blockade followed creation of new districts opposed by civil society groups.

While withdrawing AFPSA from the state remains an electoral issue, the Meitei community, which is located in the valley, has been seeking Scheduled Tribe status, yet the issue did not get any formal acknowledgement from either of the two national parties. The state government recently introduced the Inner Line Permit, a document that allows Indian citizens to enter the protected area for a limited period. The objective was to provide a cover against entry by illegal immigrants. The move has since been challenged in the Supreme Court.

Irrespective of the nature of politics, when it comes to governance, especially in smaller states, unless a party secures a clear mandate there is a tendency of coalition arrangements preferring to be on the right side of the government at the Centre. Which way would the dice roll this time?

KV Prasad is a senior political journalist.

Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.

 
KV Prasad is a senior Delhi-based journalist. Views are personal.
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