In crisis-hit Manipur, Congress likely to have upper hand in upcoming polls

In crisis-hit Manipur, Congress likely to have upper hand in upcoming polls

Submitted by alvin on Wed, 2017-01-25 10:10 As Manipur reels under another economic blockade following days of violence, winds seem to be blowing in favour of the ruling Congress. After more than a decade, incumbent Chief Minister Ibobi Singh and the Congress party faced a major setback in the form of a major law and order crisis.  The violent demand for the passing of Inner Line Permit System (ILPS) Bill in the valley areas and the massive opposition in tribal hill areas against it was a huge test for the party. Simmering in the background is the ever present fear and apprehension about the ongoing Naga peace negotiations.  As the countdown for elections began, in a calculated move, Ibobi Singh announced the creation of seven new districts a month ago, each bifurcated from the existing ones, excluding Imphal west and Bishnupur. In a state like Manipur, where protests and violence erupt at the drop of a hat, the new district formation immediately led to heightened tension and the possibility of communal/ethnic flare up.  Though the state is communally and ethnically divided, the announcement of new districts brought much support for Ibobi and the Congress, particularly in Sadar Hills areas, predominantly inhabited by the Kukis, whose long pending demand for the upgradation of Sadar Hills (now Kangpokpi District) into a full-fledged district finally seeing light of the day.  Kakching, which is predominately a Meitei Schedule Caste area, erupted in celebrations over their new district status. Not surprisingly, stiff opposition came from the Nagas. The creation of new districts was considered an 'intrusion into their lands'. Nagas did what they did best - block the national highways, the lifeline of Manipur. With Sadar hills/Kangpokpi, Jiribam, Kakching, Tengnoupal being declared as districts, Ibobi and the Congress now bank on Churachandpur.  The district inhabited by Kuki-Zo communities has six Congress legislators in the current assembly. The party strategically kicked off their official election campaign on Christmas Eve (December 23). In a show of strength, all the six Congress MLAs, along with Chief Minister, Deputy Chief Minister, Manipur Pradesh Congress Committee President, other senior members and legislators appealed to the public to vote the Congress back to power.  Churachandpur, which has remained a Congress stronghold for years, received a major blow recently. It may be recalled that the six legislators from this district were openly boycotted by civil society in the aftermath of the passing of the three infamous ILPS related Bills last year (in 2015) that led to the death of nine people, whose bodies remained unclaimed . This resulted in a major loss of face for the Congress. In order to regain control, Ibobi's first target was to make a breakthrough in the impasse between the agitator and the boycotted legislators. After more than a year, one of the dead bodies was claimed and buried. This is likely to eventually end the boycott of the six legislators in the district.  Unlike past years, this time Ibobi and the state Congress leaders are not making an attempt to push the 'integrity card'. The Churachandpur campaign slogan rather focuses on 'communal harmony'.  Ibobi is trying to capitalise on the Congress’s 15-year rule and the creation of the seven new districts. In an attempt to touch the right chord in the Christian tribal district, Congress legislators conveniently attacked the BJP on the 'beef' issue and the announcement of Good Governance Day on Dec 25.  Churachandpur campaign also saw Ibobi making a significant statement. Ibobi said modern Manipur comprised diverse people with different religions, ethnicity and place of origin. The remark came in the backdrop of allegations that Kuki- Zo people from Churachandpur and Sadar hills were migrant settlers in Manipur. The ILPS Bills demand led by Imphal valley-based civil society claims to curb ‘immigrants’ into the state. Though there is disquiet presently in the valley and Churachandpur, the ILPS issue will be one of the main deciding factors in the coming election.  On the Naga front, Ibobi seems to be managing the issue to his advantage. His dramatic visit to Ukhrul, the home of NSCN (IM) leader Muivah, in October, where he was literally made to run for his life, gave him a sympathy wave. The Naga economic blockade along the highways, which has caused immense hardships, may prove counter-productive for Ibobi and the Congress. As it stands, Ibobi appears yet again to grasp sentiments in the Imphal valley and among the Meitei community. Given that the burden of the ‘Naga issue’ or the Naga Peace negotiations lies with the Central government, Ibobi and the Congress have a free hand to concentrate on other areas such as Kuki areas and Churachandpur.  The BJP, which is expected to give a tough fight for the Congress, is busy in horse trading and managing its own internal crisis. The party even saw resignation of their senior members who joined the Congress.  The Naga People’s Party (NPF), four of their MLAs tendered their resignations in June after the passing of the three ILPS related Bills, was warned by the NSCN (IM) against participating in the state elections. While the BJP and the NPF are believed to be in alliance in neighbouring Nagaland, the BJP reportedly is not in favour of such an alliance in Manipur. The only challenge for the Congress appears to be anti-incumbency. There are voices for change in several quarters, and a desire for fresh new faces. At this juncture though, this is mostly limited to social media, public meetings and among the few educated. How far this would impact and influence the election remains to be seen. But the Congress will not have it easy either.  Besides the continuing problem of insurgency, unemployment, corruption, ethnic tensions, one cannot rule out the post-2014 general election wave, followed by the Assam state election results. In fact, the coming election is likely to bring in some surprises, like Ibobi and the Congress being voted back to power.