BJP aims to strike a fine balance
In a large white house in the upmarket Kongba Nandeibam area of Imphal, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate for Inner Manipur, RK Ranjan, faces a peculiar predicament. He is in a party whose politics in mainland India are not a palatable dish to serve up in Manipur, a state of beef- and pork-eaters. This is also a state where the Hindu population is only 41.39%, almost exactly equal to the Christian population that makes up another 41.29% , with Muslims accounting for the remaining 8.4%.
In Manipur, therefore, the party and the umbrella of Hindu nationalist institutions that make up the Sangh Parivar, have had to shift gear to enable their candidates to compete. And that is what makes the Manipur story so complex, when looked at from the lens of the BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Water and oil would somehow have to mix.
RK Ranjan is an environmentalist and unlike most living rooms of BJP politicians, there is no poster of RSS ideologues, no large Ganesha or Hindu idols on display in his. Instead, the shelves are crowded with books and dusty journals, indicating the serious academic that he is. Ranjan admits that he is a reluctant politician. He’s in it to get crop insurance and land to mostly the landless farmers. But he is also in it because he is Meitei. This is one of three tribal groupings that dominates Manipur’s politics and inherent paradoxes where the fight for land, resources and tribal identities has led to waves of insurgent movements through the decades. The Meiteis account for over half the population of Manipur, but occupy only 10% of its land – in and around the Imphal valley. The hills that surround it are 90% of the land and a contentious territory being fought over by the Nagas and Kukis. The Sangh Parivar, in order to appease the Meitei voters in the valley, needs to assure them that their deep insecurity over land will be addressed. And alongside, the fact that most Meiteis are Hindus, helps.
Which is why Ranjan, the BJP’s candidate in the Meitei-dominated valley, is dealing with an interesting set of contradictions. He is not in favour of the party’s cow protection politics or the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill. But now that he is part of a BJP-led coalition in Manipur, he cannot go against their essential idea that India is Hindustan either. Some may argue, that being Meitei, underlining that fact can’t hurt.
“The name of this country is Hindustan. That is why each and every citizen in this country, we are treating as a Hindu. That is the concept. It’s not based on religion,” Ranjan says as proof of his newly acquired loyalty.
Outside Imphal, Ranjan is aware that these words will have no impact at all. Which is why in the hills, or the Outer Manipur constituency, the Sangh has focused on its other way of building a captive vote base: giving power to neglected tribes. In this case, the Kukis. The previous Congress-led government that was in power for three successive terms tried to appeal to the Meiteis in the valley and wrote three contentious land bills that resulted in massive protests and violence by the Kukis and Nagas even as the BJP lent them a sympathetic ear. In the state election that followed, the Kuki-dominated district of Churachandpur voted overwhelmingly for the BJP – the candidate won by over 10,000 votes while the Congress got just over 500.
The appeal to one tribe over another may seem like business as usual in Manipur – political observers argue that every party does it. But when a pan-India eye is cast on the way the Sangh Parivar has observed and then moved in on tribes in Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and many other states, it is clear that there is a master plan at work, to give a political voice to tribes that have not had a share of power and make them a captive and permanent new vote bank for the party -- even if the local politics runs counter to much of what the Parivar promotes as its overarching national ideology.
The party’s candidate for Outer Manipur exemplifies all of this. Benjamin Mate is visibly nervous as he sits in the makeshift party office that is actually his home. How will he respond to questions of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, to Ayodhya, to his party’s campaign that everyone is essentially Hindu? Mate simply states the facts. He is Kuki. The tribe is a minority in Manipur; militant Kuki groups are in talks with the BJP for the very first time about their demand for a separate Kuki autonomous zone within Manipur; and for the sake of this alone, ideological differences, if any, can be set aside.
“For Kukis, when it comes to the Outer Parliamentary seat, most of the vote bank goes to the ruling party,” Mate says plainly. “That is why I am going after a BJP ticket, otherwise I shouldn’t.”
The fact that Mate’s candidacy is backed by militant Kuki outfits such as the Kuki National Organization, or the KNO, is an issue the Congress has been quick to point out in its campaign in the state. But such is the irony of political alignments in Manipur, that it has turned out that the Sangh Parivar, which is seen as playing up majority sentiments against minorities in the rest of the country, has done exactly the opposite in Manipur. The Kuki National Organization’s chief negotiator with the government, Seilen Haokip, explains: “I once mentioned this to the BJP that Kukis are a minority people. And for us – no offence meant to anybody, whichever government or party – Congress or BJP is secondary to us. We will be grateful to whichever government takes an interest in our issues,” he says, smiling. Which is why, Haokip adds, the KNO is openly canvassing for the BJP’s Kuki candidate in this election.
The backing of this militant group could mean further complications for the BJP as allegations have begun to surface that the outfit threatened Kukis with dire consequences if they did not vote for the party’s candidate — charges that have now been reported to the state police.
The outfit, in its defence, says it has not been banned, and has not threatened anyone. It says it laid down arms in 2008 to begin talks with the previous Congress government, but the administration did not take up Kukis’ demands for the next eight years. Then the BJP stepped in, ironically, as the supporter of this minority group.
At stake in this very tricky terrain is the survival of Manipur as a state and identity of its various ethnic groups. While in conversation with Kukis, the Modi government has also been in a long and continuous conversation with their rivals – Naga insurgent groups such as NSCN-IM. The Naga party, the Naga People’s Front, is part of the BJP-led alliance in power in state.
How is the BJP balancing its conversation with the Nagas on the one hand with that of the Kukis? The answer is quite possibly much more nuanced than the simple identity politics they practice elsewhere. But equally messy.
A Kuki political observer who did not want to be named outlines what is at stake.
“The Meiteis in the Imphal valley fear that if the Nagas are given political autonomy, they will join Nagalim (or the demand for a pan Naga state). And the Kukis will be affiliated with the Mizos (with whom they have an ethnic affinity). And that they fear could mean the disintegration of Manipur.” Which is why, according to this observer, it may have been a deliberate calculation by the Congress government not to hold substantive talks with either the Kukis or the Nagas.
Meitei. Kuki. Naga. In election season, long festering wounds and blood spilled on either side is in the mix. The perceived imbalance by the previous government led to a lot of bloodshed in September 2015, in which nine tribals were killed. While each tribal group is vying for proximity with the party that is in power at the Centre, the Centre is playing the same card right back – looking for a captive vote bank wherever it can find one. Politics in Manipur for the moment is entirely transactional. Ideology can wait.
Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker and author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Westland/Context in December 2018. She tweets @revatilaul