Gauging the breeze in Manipur

Published on March 1, 2017

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

The Hindu – March 1, 2017

The 2015 Framework Agreement on the Naga issue is a key concern in these Assembly elections

Manipur is to vote in two phases, on March 4 and 8, to elect the 60 members of the Legislative Assembly. The term of the current Legislative Assembly ends on March 18. In the last election, in 2012, the Congress won 42 seats and the incumbent Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh was re-elected. Two years later, five members of the Manipur State Congress Party joined the Congress, forming a stable government.

BJP’s bid

In a bid to dethrone the Congress government which has been in power for the past 15 years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the State on February 25 to campaign for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which did not win a single seat in the 2012 election. In his speech, he accused the Congress government of rampant corruption. The BJP has promised that if elected, it would ensure that there is no economic blockade in the State.

In response, Mr. Ibobi alleged that the Prime Minister’s speech was a clear indication of a close nexus between the Prime Minister, the United Naga Council (UNC), which is spearheading the ongoing economic blockade, and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) or NSCN-(IM), the armed organisation standing behind the UNC blockade.

Factors that matter

In spite of all these accusations and counter-accusations, there are three major factors that are critical to Manipur’s electoral politics.

The first and perhaps most important factor is the territorial integrity of the State. The majority of Manipur’s population, especially those in the valley, are worried about the contents of the Framework Agreement signed between the BJP government at the Centre and the NSCN-(IM) in August 2015.

In his election campaign speech, Mr. Modi categorically stated that the agreement would not infringe upon the integrity of Manipur and its territorial boundary. He said the agreement does not contain a single word which would have any implications on the territorial integrity of Manipur. However, since the BJP government is refusing to release the details of the agreement, many voters, particularly the majority Meiteis, are not convinced by this verbal assurance. Capitalising on the BJP’s reluctance, the Congress is making the issue a major campaign point, and promising to protect and preserve the territorial integrity of the State. Though the party denies it, many observers are of the view that the creation of seven new districts in December last year was a judicious plan by the Congress government to prevent or oppose the concept of greater or southern Nagaland from materialising.

The economic blockade imposed by the UNC since November 1 last year is also seen by many as a move to strengthen the argument for a separate administration for the Nagas of Manipur. The UNC’s main demand for ending the blockade is a rollback of the new districts, which the Congress government thus far rejects.

By creating new districts such as Kangpokpi and Jiribam, the people here would now oppose any move of being made part of a greater or southern Nagaland. In other words, the Congress government has successfully involved the people of the new districts in protecting the State’s territorial integrity.

The second factor is money power. Since many voters, especially in the hill or rural areas, are in need of financial assistance for their daily necessities, such as food, clothing and educational expenses, these issues will influence how votes are cast.

Influence of armed groups

The third factor is the role of armed groups. There are more than two dozen armed groups operating in the State, with varying degrees of influence in certain areas. Though some of them have signed a ceasefire or suspension of operations with the government, there are groups that have ongoing conflicts with both the State and Central forces.

Though necessary security arrangements have been made for the polls, there is still a possibility that the armed groups could use different forms of intimidatory tactics to influence the vote.

Given the volatile situation, it is difficult to predict the precise post-election scenario. But analysing the socio-political context of the State and its people, it is likely that these factors — territorial integrity, money power and armed groups — will be key in deciding the outcome of the Assembly election.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is Assistant Professor and Executive Director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University

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