The Bharatiya Janata Party’s bid to end 15 years of Congress rule in Manipur will be put to test across 38 of the 60 assembly seats where elections will be held in first of the two phases on Saturday.
Much is at stake for the BJP, which is keen on expanding its footprint in the northeast after forming governments in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. It is the only party to have fielded candidates in all the 60 seats, up from 19 in the 2012 polls.
The Congress had fielded 60 too, but former minister Phungzathang Tonsing quit after the list was made and joined a regional party to be its candidate for his pet Churachandpur seat.
The 38 seats in this phase are spread across 3 plains districts dominated by the non-tribal Meiteis and 3 hill districts where the Kuki-Zomi tribes are in a majority. The Congress had won 27 of these seats last time.
The elections are being held in the backdrop of a four-month economic blockade by a Naga organisation allegedly backed by the Isak-Muivah faction of the extremist National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM). Sentiments against enforcers of the blockade are likely to play a role in this phase.
The ruling Congress and BJP have been accusing each other of a deal with NSCN-IM for influencing the outcome of the polls. The BJP, projected by the Congress as a pro-NSCN party, is more on the back-foot.
The non-burial of 8 ‘martyrs’ of a tribal movement against 3 controversial bills is also expected to impact voters, particularly in the 3 hill districts. The 8 were killed in arson and police firing in September 2015.
The Congress is “banned” in these hill districts, though the movement lost momentum after chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh created 7 new districts last year. The Kuki-Zomi tribes at the forefront of the “dead body politics” are seen as major beneficiaries of the new districts.
Keen on winning, the BJP had applied the Assam formula – weaning away MLAs from the Congress – in Manipur. After 6 MLAs quit and joined the BJP, the Congress under Singh is believed to have pulled itself together.
This phase will decide to fate of BJP’s heavyweights – former Union minister Thounaojam Chaoba, ex-Congress ministers N Biren, Y Erabot and N Mangi, and the firebrand O Joy, formerly the chief of a regional party.
The top Congress candidates in this phase are state party president TN Haokip, assembly speaker Th Lokeshwar, ministers I Hemochandra, AK Mirabai, Govindas Konthoujam, Kh Ratankumar, Ngamthang Haokip and Manga Vaiphei.
“For the first time, this phase will be covered in real time using smartphones, and for the first time, student volunteers of NCC, NSS and Bharat Scouts and Guides will assist during the election,” chief electoral officer Vivek Kumar Dewangan said.
“About 280 companies of central paramilitary forces and state armed forces from Assam, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh will be used during the election out of which 30 companies will be deployed as ROP (road opening party) on national highways,” he added.
The commission has facilitated postal ballot for 2,228 cadres of some armed groups under suspension of operations with the government. They would be casting their votes at 14 designated camps. EOM
MANIPUR PHASE 1 QUICK FACTS
Total seats: 60
Phase 1 seats: 38
Total candidates: 168
Total voters: 1,125,441 (male 546,098, female 579,343)
Polling booths: 1,683
Critical booths: 256
Vulnerable booths: 1,427
Security forces deployed: 280 companies
Key candidates: Th Lokeshwar, I Hemochandra, AK Mirabai, Govindas Konthoujam, Kh Ratankumar, Ngamthang Haokip, Manga Vaiphei, and Th Shyamkumar (Congress); Y Erabot, N Biren, N Mangi, O Joy, and Th Biswajit (BJP); Phungzathang Tonsing (National People’s Party)
Read more on our Manipur election coverage.