Manipur witnessed its most tightly contested assembly elections in recent memory and now all eyes are on whether the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will end the Congress’s 15-year rule.
In 2012, the Congress – led by chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh - won 42 seats of 60 seats; the BJP, contesting only 19 seats, failed to open its account. The outcome is expected to be much closer this time.
In 2017, the BJP is contesting from all 60 seats in a bid to increase its presence in the North East. The party already runs governments in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
As is now standard practice, the BJP chose not to project a chief minister candidate in Manipur, and banked on Modi’s charm to woo voters. The Congress contested with its chief minister, Ibobi at the fore.
Polling took place in two phases—March 4 for 38 seats and March 8 for the other 22 in the backdrop of a continuing four-month blockade of two key national highways by the United Naga Council (UNC). The UNC is protesting the creation of two new districts of Tengnoupal and Kangpokpi. This blockade, which caused hardship and suffering across the state, is likely to prove crucial in the Imphal Valley region that is dominated by non-tribal Meiteis.
While the BJP organised several high profile visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP chief Amit Shah, and home minister Rajnath Singh to lend heft to the state campaign, gaining power might still prove difficult.
In the months leading up to the election, chief minister Ibobi played his cards well by first creating seven new districts, then blaming New Delhi of not doing enough to end the blockade, and finally raking up Centre’s framework agreement with rebel outfit NSCN-IM to paint the BJP into a corner.
Details of the agreement are yet to be made public and there is apprehension in Manipur that the deal between the Modi government and the Isak-Muivah faction of National Socialist Council of Nagaland might compromise Manipur’s territorial integrity.
AFSPA and Inner Line Permit
Given that the BJP is part of the Nagaland Peoples’ Front-led coalition in Nagaland, the Congress’s attempt to portray the saffron party as being sympathetic towards Nagas might work with Meiteis and Kuki-Zomi voters.
Blockade and the Naga framework agreement aside, the scrapping of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) and, and the demand for an Inner Line Permit for ‘outsiders’ visiting Manipur, remained major issues.
This election also marks the entry of anti-AFPSA activist Irom Sharmila’s Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) party, which contested just 3 seats.
The iconic rights activist contested against Ibobi in Thoubal, but neither her and nor the other two PRJA candidates are expected to win.
What is at stake — Okram Ibobi Singh — Manipur Chief Minister
After 15-years at the helm one would assume anti-incumbency would weigh heavily on Manipur’s chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh. But the 69-year old, who is already the trouble-torn state’s longest ruling CM, is confident of a fourth term in the top post.
This has been Singh’s toughest electoral battle yet, as an aggressive BJP seeks to win Manipur after coming to power in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
The Congress veteran faces allegations of corruption and lack of development during his tenure---charges he denies. His 15 years has also been termed as the “bloodiest period” in Manipur’s history with nearly 1,500 extra-judicial killings taking place. Singh played his cards well this time, but it remains to be seen if his strategy will pay off.
The Highs and Lows of the Election Campaign
• Smartphone recording and web streaming of all 2794 polling stations
• Hundred percent EPIC cards in Manipur polls
• All women polling personnel at 16 polling stations
• GPS tracking on web as well as on smartphones of all flying squads
• Highest voters turn out (86.5 percent) in last three elections in the first phase
• Female voters outnumbered Males
• Low violence
• Just 11 women candidates in 2017 polls unlike 15 in 2012 polls.
• No proper facilities (including wheelchair for disabled/elderly persons) at polling stations despite assurances.
• Vehicles from Assam used in Manipur polls due to non-availability of enough vehicles.
• Security forces from Assam, Odisha and others used in Manipur Polls.
• Low voltage electioneering, with much less fanfare, because of poll restrictions.
• AFSPA: The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which has been in force in Manipur since 1980 gives armed forces extraordinary powers, including immunity from legal action, to handle operations in “disturbed areas”. Despite campaigns to scrap this draconian law, it continues to be in operation barring seven assembly segments. Irom Sharmila’s PRJA party wants AFSPA removed immediately.
• Framework Agreement: The secret framework agreement signed between BJP-led government at Centre and the extremist National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) in 2015 was a key poll issue. The Congress has urged BJP to make its details public, citing concerns that the agreement may affect Manipur’s territorial integrity, but the BJP is yet to do so.
• UNC Blockade: The United Naga Council (UNC) declared blockade of two key national highways since November 1 in protest against creation of new districts. The issue saw both Congress and BJP blaming each other. The ruling Congress accused New Delhi of not doing enough to end it, while the saffron party blamed CM Okram Ibobi Singh for lack of action. Amit Shah has promised to get it lifted within 24 hours if BJP comes to power.
• Inner Line Permit: There is a demand by a section Manipur, especially in the Imphal Valley, to make inner line permits (ILP) mandatory for ‘outsiders’ visiting the state in order to “protect indigenous people of the state”. The provision already exists in Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. None of the two major parties, BJP and Congress, made any specific commitment on the issue in their campaign.
• Corruption: Strife among various groups in Manipur and violence by rebel outfits has affected development in the state. There are also allegations of corruption against the ruling Congress government. In his election rally in Imphal, Narendra Modi accused the state government of taking 10% commission for development works and promised corruption-free governance. Singh refuted the allegations and said Manipur has been more peaceful and became best performing state in many sectors during the last 15 years.