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Voting in a season of discontent
By: Pradip Phanjoubam | JANUARY 18, 2017 (Ref: thehindu.com)

The dates for the election to the Manipur Legislative Assembly have been announced. Polling will be in two phases, on March 4 and March 8. Results will be declared on March 11. A fortnight ago, there was speculation that the election may be preceded by a spell of President’s Rule in the wake of the indefinite economic blockade by the United Naga Council (UNC), a civil organisation in Manipur which claims to be the apex body of all Naga tribes in the State, but these have since been put to rest.

Blockade numbs Manipur
The blockade is now two and a half months old and Manipur continues to reel under the effect of shortages of many essential commodities, petrol and cooking gas in particular. Petrol stations are shut, but whenever there is some indication that some of them have been replenished for rationed distribution, miles-long queues of vehicles form outside them, sometimes overnight. The market understandably is sluggish and prices of commodities have gone up. Daily wage earners are the hardest hit. Demonetisation has made their trauma even worse. Thankfully, Imphal valley is a fertile, rice-growing region, ensuring that the people have not gone hungry. Had it been otherwise, there would have been mayhem on the streets by now.

Election pundits have been busy interpreting how this sorry state of affairs would play out in the March election. The foremost questions are: Would the hardships caused by the blockade turn the people against the ruling Congress? Would the Bharatiya Janata Party’s challenge become any more formidable because of it?

Significance of Assembly composition
The Manipur Assembly has 60 seats. Of these, 40 represent the valley inhabited predominantly by non-tribal Hindu Meiteis; 39 of these are for the general category and one is reserved for Scheduled Castes. The BJP had hoped it would be able to reap a harvest here, partly because of the community’s religious affiliation. Twenty seats represent the hills and 19 of these are reserved for Scheduled Tribes, after the Kangpokpi constituency in the erstwhile SADAR (Selected Area Development and Administrative Region) hills came to be de-reserved to accommodate its sizeable population of Nepalis. Of the 20 hill seats, Nagas normally hold sway in 11 to 12. The rest are generally won by Kukis and aligned tribes.

Given that the BJP government at the Centre is holding peace talks with the Naga militant group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), the party’s State unit was hoping that it would be able to win a majority of the Naga seats as well with the blessings of the militant group. Its main rival here is the Naga People’s Front, which too would be vying for the NSCN(IM)’s support. The Congress, which once had a lion’s share of the Naga seats, has, in the past few months, been marginalised as the NSCN(IM) and Naga organisations such as the UNC are opposed to it. Many Naga Congress MLAs and former ministers thought it prudent to resign from the party ahead of the election wishing to retain their seats. In Nagaland, the Naga People’s Front (NPF) and the BJP are allies.

Electoral master stroke?
However, the UNC’s blockade — which began on November 1 in anticipation of the Manipur government giving in to the long-standing demand for upgrading the SADAR and Jiribam subdivisions to full-fledged districts — has upset these equations radically. This became even more so after the government, at a cabinet sitting at midnight on December 8 to defy the UNC’s coercive protest, created not just the two districts the UNC was opposed to, but seven by splitting seven of the State’s nine districts.

The UNC considers four of the seven split districts to be a part of the ancestral Naga homeland and was quick to accuse the Manipur government of splitting this homeland, although, as the government contends, how districts can split people is incomprehensible. This is particularly so because the Assembly and parliamentary constituencies have remained untouched.

The worry of the BJP’s State unit amid the current ethnic polarisation is how proximity to the NSCN(IM), an organisation avowed to the dismemberment of Manipur to form a sovereign Greater Nagaland, and the UNC (which many consider to be a surrogate of the former) may alienate its support base in the valley where 40 seats are at stake. The Congress Chief Minister, Okram Ibobi Singh’s move in this sense may be an electoral master stroke, not for the splintering or otherwise of any homeland, but for leaving rival BJP on the horns of a dilemma.

This dilemma is visible in the State unit’s muted response to the blockade question, probably not wanting to offend its Central leadership now holding talks with the NSCN(IM). Under the circumstances, if nothing happens to change the nature of this polarisation, there can be no doubt that the Congress’s position is strong in the valley, and the Chief Minister and his team may have found a way to overcome the anti-incumbency burden of having been in power for 15 years continuously.

Other than the valley seats, the Congress will also command sympathy in many Kuki constituencies. It may still win two or three Naga constituencies which had always been its strongholds if voters are not allowed to be totally coerced by the militants. In the party’s favour too is the fact that the State unit of the BJP does not have any charismatic leader who can jolt the confidence of the Congress even at this late stage.

Fluctuating loyalties
But things can change in the run-up to the March election. This happened in the Assam election of April 2016, and even more dramatically in Arunachal Pradesh later the same year, where the BJP installed its governments in both States. In Assam it wrested power from the Congress but only after wooing many Congress leaders to its camp before the election. In Arunachal Pradesh, it did this by engineering the defection of almost the entire lot of MLAs from the ruling Congress after the election. In Manipur too, such a scenario is not impossible to think of. Here too, the BJP is in a position to take advantage of the psychology of weak and dependent Northeast States of feeling safer by being on the side of the party in power at the Centre. There is always the feeling here, among political leaders as well as electorate, that the clearance of projects and Central assistance in lean times will always be smoother if the party that rules the Centre also rules the State.

There is one more factor that has determined party loyalty. The ceiling on ministry size for small Northeast States fixed by the anti-defection law is 12. This includes the chief minister. Those in the ruling Congress, and indeed the contender BJP, who are unsure of making this elite 12 will begin looking for greener pastures. This will also be an opportunity for smaller parties such as the Trinamool Congress to enlist potential winners. Irom Sharmila’s brand new party, the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA), has shown no interest in this kind of politics, but its idealism is still too nascent to generate the kind of wave that wins elections.

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