Mandate 2012 in Manipur isn't just a fight between the ruling Congress and the rest. It's a clash of ideology between Manipur CM Okram Ibobi Singh and his Nagaland counterpart Neiphiu Rio.
It is also a battle for survival for the Congress in Nagaland, on the slide since the 2008 assembly election there.
Bordering Nagaland, Mao is a Naga-dominated hill town on the blockade-prone National Highway 39 (now NH2), 110 km north of Manipur capital Imphal. The town's emotional attachment with Nagaland has often accentuated the divide between the Imphal Valley, Manipur's administrative epicentre, and the surrounding hills.
The Naga People's Front (NPF), Nagaland's ruling party, rode this 'ethnic affiliation' to contest 12 seats across the Naga-inhabited hills of Manipur. The party has made it clear it is fighting for a cause - integration of Nagas. "The NPF is the only platform for the Naga voice," Rio said while campaigning. "Let us unite to realise our goal of living together."
Nagaland's neighbours - Assam, Arunachal and Manipur - are opposed to the integration idea as it would entail ceding large swathes of Naga-inhabited land. Manipur has been the most vociferous against integration, terming it a challenge to its territorial integrity.
"The NPF's entry in Manipur election is not an issue," said Ibobi Singh. But his party had in December last year tried in vain to block the NPF's participation. "The Nagaland party is against Manipur's interests, and everyone knows it has the backing of Naga militants with similar intentions," a senior Manipur Congress leader said.
Other Manipur parties too regard the NPF as an irritant. "The NPF's agenda is astride the tradition of selection, not election, in the hills," said former Manipur chief minister Radhabinod Koijam.
This 'selection' is expected to help the Mao constituency's NPF candidate Dikho prevail over PT Arhai of the Congress and Woba Joram of the Trinamool Congress.
But the party losing sleep over the NPF's bid to conquer Manipur's hills is the Congress in Nagaland, where assembly election is scheduled next year. The party had won 23 seats in 2008, but its MLA count dropped to 18 subsequently with the NPF gaining ground as the 'messiah' for Nagas in Nagaland.
"We support Naga integration too, but if the peace process (with militants since 1997) doesn't succeed, it will boomerang on us," said senior Nagaland Congress leader I Imkong.