By Pradip Phanjoubam
(This article was first published in The Asian Age, New Delhi, on Wednesday, May 25 and is being reproduced here for our readers who do not subscribe to this English daily)
The BJP victory in the recently concluded Assam Assembly election, the results for which were declared on May 19, was expected but not by a landslide margin the party and its allies took the Assembly, having together bagged 86 seats in the 126 member house. Of the 86, BJP alone contributed 60, a stupendous rise from five seats it managed in 2011. Equally spectacular is the manner in which the ruling Congress, with strongman Tarun Gogoi at the helm for three consecutive Assembly terms, was dispatched with only 26 seats.
So much has already been said of the Assam results, and now the question is, how will this change of guards in this most populous and important of the Northeast states, impact the rest of the Northeast?
Without question, the Assam development would have startled the Congress government in Manipur headed by Okram Ibobi, more than in the two other Northeastern states still ruled by the Congress, Meghalaya and Mizoram.
Arunachal Pradesh which returned the Congress in the last Assembly election has already slipped out of the Congress sphere thanks to a disgraceful game of defection earlier this year, quite brazenly and in a partisan manner abetted by the state governor.
Tripura has always been a communist bastion only occasionally challenged by the Congress although in recent times, the BJP based is seen as growing, especially in grassroots elections, and Nagaland has, since the days of veteran S.C. Jamir a decade and a half ago, distanced itself from the Congress in favour of regional party, Naga People’s Front, NPF. Nagaland today has four BJP legislators, one returned as BJP in the last election and three more joined by defection. The Nationalist Congress Party, NCP, which returned four MLAs, broke up with three deciding to join the BJP which had one original MLA. The sole remaining NCP MLA ultimately headed into the ruling NPF camp.
There is no doubt that the Congress governments in Meghalaya and Mizoram too would be vulnerable, but this, if at all, would be in anticipation of what happened in Arunachal Pradesh, whereby the BJP engineers a split and topples the governments using its clout as the ruling party at the Centre.
The general perception in these small and weak Northeastern states, dependent on Central government largess for sustenance, is that their most secure position is to be on the side of the ruling formation at the Centre, and this mindset would also catalyse any such pressures for a shift of alliance towards the party in power at the Centre.
The equation in Manipur would be a little different and there are reasons why the state is likely to become the next target of the BJP to conquer. The scenario here is in some ways similar to the conditions in Assam that made the victory of the BJP and the Asom Gana Parishad which came out of the “Assam Agitation” of the 1970s and 1980s against immigrants, imminent.
For one thing, Manipur’s Assembly elections are due nine months hence in February 2017 therefore political strategists would see moves to topple the government just as yet would only earn disrepute, as well as strengthen local resistance at what may be portrayed as the ruling party’s unwarranted hegemony.
For another, as in Assam, the state is currently in the grip of an acute insecurity of a radical upset of its demography on account of unchecked immigration, a concern which has become complex because of the ethnic divide between the tribal population in the hills and the largely non-tribal population of the central valley, both of whom see the problem quite differently.
Three bills passed by the state Assembly late last year which together were purportedly meant to achieve what a British era legislation, popularly known as the Inner Line Permit System, ILPS, which restricts immigration and prohibits transfers of land ownership to non-domiciles, has been the cause of a sharp split between the state’s hills and valley, the hills fearing these bills, if they become Acts, would adversely affect them.
In Assam the BJP and its ally, the AGP, used the general Assamese insecurity on the immigrant issue as a campaign plank and reaped richly in terms of votes. The party may try to replicate the feat in Manipur too after negotiating the hill-valley divide on the issue. It is another matter if reaping electoral benefits by playing on such insecurities will prove prudent in the long run, but elections are about immediate results, and insecure populations will always be ready to fall for tall promises.
There are other similarities between the Manipur situation and Assam. Unlike Mizoram and Meghalaya which are overwhelmingly Christian majority, Manipur, like Assam, is Hindu majority, and therefore the BJP may presume it as easier ground to spread its ideology. Unlike in the other two states, Manipur also has an RSS base in the valley districts, which should be encouraging for the BJP. The fact that the BJP has never managed to set roots in Manipur, may not be altogether discouraging for the party considering its recent sterling performance in Assam, which is also traditionally not BJP territory.
In the 2012 Assembly election in Manipur, the BJP drew a blank. However, following disqualification of two Trinamool Congress MLAs in a defection drama in 2015, the BJP wooed the disqualified MLAs and fielded them on its tickets in the by elections that followed. The two won their respective seats, giving the BJP a presence of two MLAs in the House of 60, after almost two decades, when at another peak of BJP power under the Vajpayee government, Manipur saw four BJP MLA, two of them by defection.
Again as in Assam, the BJP may also champion the demand amongst a section of the majority Meitei community for Scheduled Tribe status. Although, there is also another section of the Meiteis who think this is retrogressive and do not want the ST status, the main opposition to such a move is likely to be again from the hill tribes who are already in the ST category, who see the possible inclusion of the Meiteis in the category may end up depleting their shares of the benefits of reservation accorded to the status.
As in Assam again, the Congress under chief minister Okram Ibobi would have also complete three consecutive terms by the next election, therefore similar anti-incumbency scars, besides those of charges of corruption and incompetence, would also work in the BJP’s favour.
Indeed, the success of the BJP in keeping its electoral promises in Assam, may become the fulcrum on which the fate of Congress government in Manipur rests.
(The writer is editor Imphal Free Press, and author of “The Northeast Question: Conflicts and frontiers” (Routledge 2016)