Demonetisation of old currency notes by the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre would be a prominent issue in the coming assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Goa.
But in Manipur, the fifth state which is headed for polls early next year, creation of seven new districts and its repercussions, which has sharply divided the state’s three main communities — Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis — would be a more significant topic.
In a gazette notification issued on December 9, the Congress government in the state led by Okram Ibobi Singh announced the creation of seven new districts — taking the total number of districts in the state to 16.
The new districts — Jiribam, Kangpokpi, Kakching, Tengnoupal, Kamjong, Pherzawl and Noney — were carved from Imphal East, Churachandpur, Senapati, Thoubal, Chandel, Ukhrul and Tamenglong districts.
The chief minister later told a public function that the move, which addressed a long-standing demand of the majority Meitei community and the minority Kukis, was for “administrative convenience” and not with an eye on polls.
The decision was taken ahead of the Election Commission of India’s announcement of poll dates and despite an ongoing blockade of two key national highways (NH2, NH37) by the United Naga Council (UNC), which claims to represent the minority Nagas residing mainly in the state’s hill districts.
The ongoing UNC blockade, which began in November 1, against the state government’s proposed move to create the new districts of Jiribam and Sadar Hills, has led to a scarcity of essential goods, rise in prices (especially of petroleum products) and hurt the state’s economy.
While creation of the new districts was welcomed by several Meitei and Kuki groups, the UNC opposed it and intensified protests.
Last week there were several attacks on security personnel at various locations, killing three security personnel and injuring nearly a dozen. The attacks are believed to be the handiwork of cadre from the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM).
Three low-intensity bomb blasts in Imphal led the administration to shut down Internet services in several districts. On Sunday, over 20 vehicles were torched by protesters opposed to the UNC blockade in Imphal East district resulting in imposition of curfew.
Amid all these developments, in which the state government insinuates the BJP-led government in Centre of having a role, speculations are already underway whether the CM’s move would benefit the Congress and help it retain power.
Singh, who has been at the helm of affairs in Imphal since 2002, is looking for another term. The party had suffered some setbacks in recent months with five of its MLAs quitting and joining BJP.
An opinion poll in October declared Manipur could be the second state in Northeast after Assam to come under BJP rule. It predicted the saffron party could win 31-35 seats in the 60-member assembly while Congress’s share may get restricted to 19-24 seats.
Congress is hoping the Singh’s “bold decision” would help in boosting the party’s image among the decisive Meitei and Kuki voters and thwart anti-incumbency.
The BJP, which was caught on the wrong foot by creation of the new districts, is still confident of ousting Singh. Senior party leaders blamed the CM for trying to shift responsibility of the present situation to Centre despite law and order being a state subject. “How can new districts be created without adequate infrastructure? The CM is trying cheap tricks ahead of polls to hide the government’s incompetency. Voters are not going to fall for such gimmicks as they want change,” said a former Congress leader who shifted allegiance to BJP recently.
The BJP, which is a coalition partner of Naga Peoples’ Front-led government in Nagaland, has announced it will not partner the party in Manipur.
This could be due to the realisation that votes of Meiteis, which would be crucial in two-third of the total seats, would be essential for attaining power. The NPF could wrest several seats in the Naga-dominated hill districts, which have 19 seats.
Polls dates are yet to be announced and there are still some more weeks for elections. If the economic blockade and violence continues, the situation in Manipur could change again before voters press buttons on EVMs.