Manipur deserves better, but the best of a bad lot is all it could end up with after the elections to its assembly. There is also the Naga peace deal: The state has extensive Naga homelands that will have to be factored into any settlement.
Okram Ibobi Singh’s desperate gambit to win Manipur for the fourth consecutive time for the Congress — and for himself as chief minister — hasn’t paid off yet. In the absence of allies, the 28 seats the Congress won has fallen short of the 31 required for majority in the 60-member house. A spectacular late campaign surge by the BJP brought it a count of 21, from zero previously. The support of four allies and finessing of an independent MLA has taken the grouping to a majority — but only just.
As it stands, with the inevitable exercise of having to prove majority in the assembly the elections in Manipur are done, but hardly dusted. With a slim majority, the BJP combine will be vulnerable to jettisoning by fair-weather allies. Defection is high art in Manipur.
A peculiarity of this electoral outcome is that, for the first time in years, there will be a substantial Opposition irrespective of which combine governs. If the BJP is able to consolidate its hold ,it will have the Congress at its heels.
Ironically, this will be to find fault in the BJP’s delivery of its election promises — what Manipur sorely needs and what Singh was unable to provide. Singh has for three terms over 15 years presided over a slide in ethnic relations, collapse of urban and rural infrastructure, runaway corruption, and horrific human rights violations. The BJP will need to quickly find a way to end a crippling economic blockade imposed by the United Naga Council (UNC), the apex body of Naga tribes in Manipur; provide massive development; a sense of security over land and lives; and an equitable settlement of the Naga peace deal, to which the blockade is linked. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his senior BJP colleagues have publicly placed their names to it all.
As to the Naga issue, in August 2015 the Government of India signed a so-called framework of agreement with the largest Naga rebel groups, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah). In Nagaland’s rigid tribal structure, it has become increasingly clear that, in post-conflict Nagaland there’s no future for the NSCN (I-M) — especially for its key leaders and numerous cadre who are Tangkhul Naga from the northern Ukhrul district of Manipur. This possibility has refuelled long time fears among the non-Naga Meitei majority that a Naga peace deal will involve ceding of contiguous Naga homelands in Manipur’s territory. This is a violently emotive issue.
This is reinforced by an open secret in these parts: The UNC is a strategic vehicle for the NSCN (I-M). The blockade that has choked Manipur since early November (and provided Singh a political lifeline to play to Meitei interests — the Congress would otherwise have been decimated) has been at the instance of the UNC. The BJP-led central government and now, the BJP in Manipur have much to lose in the non-Naga parts of Manipur — where the Meitei reside as also the ethnic majority, and the Kuki and Zomi tribes — if it is seen to pander to Naga interests.
The UNC began to push hard about three years ago to delink from the administrative control of Imphal, accusing Singh’s government of pursuing policies of administration and development that favour the Meiteis. The NSCN (I-M) piggybacked on this demand.
The BJP will now have to step delicately, even though Singh may have made its job of untangling Manipur’s ethnic mess a little easier. In his bid to regain support among non-Nagas, on December 9 Singh announced the formation of seven new districts adding to the existing nine. Of these, four were earlier part of the Naga-majority districts of Ukhrul, Senapati, Tamenglong and Chandel. In effect, it cauterised non-Naga areas.
Theoretically this may help the BJP balance the peace process with the NSCN (I-M) as well as live up to the electoral promise that Manipur’s “territorial integrity” won’t be disturbed. It can now offer administrative autonomy to Naga homelands in Manipur within the geographical construct of Manipur.
But it will require great finessing. If the BJP is seen to give in to Naga interests without offering a massive development and administrative boost to Manipur — perhaps even dilute the ambit of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act as a sweetener, or reach out to Meitei rebel groups with offers of peace and reconciliation — Manipur will explode. And, if the BJP does not settle Naga interests in Manipur, it will run the risk of jettisoning the Naga peace process. As the BJP will very quickly discover, in Manipur political ballast is a brutal business.
Sudeep Chakravarti is author of Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land, a book set in Manipur and Nagaland
The views expressed are personal