Manipur, a state soaked in conflicts, will elect a new state legislative assembly over two phases, on 4 and 8 March respectively. The small state has 60 assembly seats. Geographically divided into tribal and non-tribal areas, 40 seats fall in the valley occupied by the non-tribal Meitei Hindu, while 20 assembly seats are reserved for Adivasis inhabiting the hills. Power has thus generally been concentrated in the valley and in the hands of the Meitei, something which has led to resentment among Adivasi groups and occasional demands for a separate administration. Less than a month ago, the currently unstable political situation in Manipur compelled the central government to inspect the state and consider imposing president’s rule for the 9th time since Manipur became a full state in 1972. This did not happen, and the assembly elections will go ahead as planned.
Now, the candidates are filing their nomination papers. Interestingly, the BJP which has never been in power in the state is ahead of the Congress (INC) – which has ruled the state for the past 15 years – in the pre-poll surveys. The Manipur elections thus promise to be a closely fought contest after a decade and a half of more or less total dominance by the INC. Yet the INC remains a formidable entity in Manipur, and it is far from given that the BJP can oust the current Okram Ibobi Singh government. In the last state assembly elections in 2012, the INC won a full 42 seats while the All India Trinamul Congress emerged as the largest opposition party with only with 7 seats. Other regional parties such as the Manipur State Congress Party (MSCP) and the Nagaland People’s Front (NPF) can hardly win more than a handful of seats and hence do not constitute a major concern for the INC during this campaign. The newly formed Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) is similarly not expected to make any major impact. The PRJA made the headlines when it was formed in the fall by the well-known human rights activist Irom Sharmila who ended a 16 years long hunger strike last August. While Sharmila will take on Chief Minister Ibobi Singh in his own constituency, her party is unlikely to change the bipolar structure of the overall contest.
As the elections approached, the INC-led state government in December took everybody by surprise by bifurcating seven of the state’s nine districts, thus bringing the total number of districts to 16. The government claimed this was done for administrative purposes, and to bring development to the state; and it has indeed showered development programmes on the population since then. Other political parties dismiss the move as vote bank politics. But most importantly, the creation of seven new districts has greatly angered the Naga communities. The United Naga Council (UNC), an apex Naga civil organization, claims that Naga villages have deliberately been merged with non-Naga areas to form new districts and to divide the Naga people. The UNC works to delink Naga areas from Manipur to form a Greater Nagaland, and the recent ‘division’ of the Naga communities through the creation of new districts would make this mission more difficult. UNC imposed an economic blockade on National Highways which serve as the lifeline for people in the state. The blockade is still on and will surely be an important electoral issue, as will the Naga situation in general. The Nagas appears to have a close relationship with BJP-led central government, who may or may not be favourably disposed to the UNC’s demands. Still, the mere possibility of the ‘Greater Nagaland’ aspiration being realised has caused concern among the non-Adivasi groups in the valley, who may for that reason chose to rally behind the INC. The question is whether that will be enough to ensure it a fourth consecutive term in office.