Manipur: Tracking a campaign behind close doors | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Manipur: Tracking a campaign behind close doors

By, Imphal
Apr 18, 2024 05:20 AM IST

An advisory by the Meitei radical group Arambai Tenggol has directed political parties to keep election campaigning low-key this year

There are no rallies, road shows, or even small public meetings on the roads of Imphal. It is difficult to spot party flags across the entire Inner Manipur constituency, spanning Meitei-dominated valley areas, although it is set to go to polls on April 19; Outer Manipur will go to the polls in two phases, on April 19 and April 26. Party flags can be seen only at the offices and residences of candidates. Most election meetings are held behind closed doors; there are no star campaigners; and feasts in the evenings for party workers, a standard feature of election campaigns across the country are missing in Manipur. The reason – an advisory by the Meitei radical group Arambai Tenggol directing political parties to keep election campaigning low-key this year.

A poster encouraging people to vote in Imphal. (REUTERS)
A poster encouraging people to vote in Imphal. (REUTERS)

Since ethnic clashes began last May, the radical group has been accused by Kukis of orchestrating violence and by Manipur police of crimes such as abduction, extortion, snatching vehicles and assaulting civilians. The group also stoked controversy earlier this year when it summoned 37 MLAs, and two MPs to Manipur’s Kangla, assaulted at least three legislators and made the politicians sign a pledge to protect Manipur’s integrity.

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Not surprisingly, the radical group’s advisory dated March 30 is being followed by all parties and independent candidates.

Inside the compound where the chief minister’s office is located, chief minister Biren Singh (of the Bharatiya Janata Party) has been holding gatherings of 400-500 people every day. But there is no sloganeering or display of flags here either. No one is allowed to make videos or shout slogans. The only purpose of the meeting is to communicate the party’s poll messages without any loud sloganeering. Supporters are instructed to come in vehicles without any party flags or loud speakers.

That has meant a change in how the campaign is run.

A BJP worker, who asked not to be named, said, “We are meeting village heads and speaking to them. There is no need for loudspeakers or music. In the evenings, party workers come to their leader’s house, where strategy is discussed. There is no feast. But tea is served to the supporters inside the compound. It is fair to respect the sentiments of the people who have lost everything in the last one year by keeping the campaign low-key.”

Read Here: ‘Won’t allow Manipur to break apart', declares Amit Shah in Imphal

A Congress worker who asked not to be named agreed, although he blamed the BJP and pointed out the influence of the Arambai Tenggol. “The state has suffered because of the BJP’s wrongdoing. The Arambai Tenggol, which has become powerful, did issue such guidelines, but it is only fair that we do not play loud music or take our car convoys with music blaring when people are suffering at the hands of the BJP. Our candidate is visiting relief camps of the people who lost their homes in the ethnic clashes. Is it right to carry flags and play music on way to the camps?”

The BJP’s Basanta Kumar Singh, a state minister is taking on the Congress’ Bimol Akoijam in the constituency. In Outer Manipur, reserved for scheduled tribe candidates, the Naga People Front’s K Timothy Zimik, supported by the BJP, is taking on the Congress’ Alfred K Arthur.

People in both parties, however, admitted that this election season, they are missing out on the local songs that are written and played by political parties. From theme songs to satirical ones on opponents, music has always had a space in Manipur elections. A song by a local singer during the last elections about the BJP’s initiatives fetched over a million views. There have been many such songs that become local hits but not this year.

This Monday marked the first big deviation from normal this campaign. The BJP’s star campaigner and Union home minister, Amit Shah addressed a rally at the Hapta Kangjeibung public ground. By Sunday evening, the ground was decorated with BJP flags and posters of the senior party leaders. Party workers came dressed in hats, scarves or sarees emblazoned with the party’s symbol, a lotus.

A woman BJP state executive worker who asked not to be named said, “We are not playing music or celebrating. Our home minister is here. He is the one who can restore peace in Manipur. The organisation that issued the guidelines on the need to stick to low key campaigning will understand this. Taking out time from his hectic schedule, he decided to talk to voters of a small state like Manipur. Exceptions can be made for such leaders.”

By Tuesday morning, the flags were removed from the ground.

Read Here: Manipur govt takes down CM website to follow Lok Sabha model code of conduct

At least 221 people have died and nearly 50,000 people have been displaced in Manipur’s ethnic clashes that started on May 3 last year. Kukis and Meiteis are still divided on ethnic lines and do not live in the same place. Also, what began as ethnic clashes has fanned into anarchy: underground militant groups regaining the support they had lost in recent years, targeted attacks on security forces and rise in extortion because the state is flooded with looted arms and ammunition.

In the run up to the elections, for almost 47 days there was no violence. And then on Saturday, two men were killed in a gunfight. Kuki groups have accused Arambai Tenggol members of being involved in the attack.

Commenting on the low-key election campaigns this year, BJP candidate Basanta Kumar Singh, said, “Campaigning is subdued. This is the right word. In Mizoram also, some civil society organisations issue regulations urging parties not to use money power or hold big meetings. In the same way, certain organisations here have issued some guidelines. There is no restriction on posters. They have only asked parties not to have huge meetings, use loudspeakers, or hold feasts. Actually it is good for the society that money is not being wasted. This is how it should be everywhere. If you know the BJP, then you should know that the party is always working and in election mode. We are not like our rivals who make noise only during elections. The party has taken big decisions such as implementing Inner Permit Line, ending Free Movement Regime (FMR), building border fence to protect indigenous people and save future generations of Manipur. People have seen our work. This is just like a revision before exams after studying the whole year. Why do you need to make noise about it?”

The Congress party’s candidate Bimol Akoijam, a professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said he is only meeting and greeting people. “We are not campaigning. It is a meet and greet. I am visiting temples in villages. Manipur has local deities. I am praying in the temples to connect with the spirit of the area. This is not a religious, but a spiritual connection. I go there and pray. At least 60-70% of the time when people know I am there, they come out to see me. That is when villagers come to meet us, and they speak to us. They have seen me on television all these days. I will not say that the Manipur government failed in stopping violence. They orchestrated the violence. People are coming forward and asking me to save Manipur. A woman even gave me 100. At public meetings, women are giving me what they can afford. They see me as someone who can save Manipur from this cycle of violence. But look at how the BJP is able to organise such a public meeting, flag hoisting and loudspeakers during union home minister Amit’s Shah rally. Draw your own conclusion.”

The two candidates, however, did not utter two words, Arambai Tenggol.

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    Prawesh Lama covers crime, policing, and issues of security in Delhi. Raised in Darjeeling, educated in Mumbai, he also looks at special features on social welfare in the National Capital.

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