Election punditry

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Just two and a half months away from the March elections to the Manipur Legislative Assembly, pundits are busy interpreting how the sorry state of affairs prevailing in Manipur at the moment following the UNC indefinite blockade along Manipur’s two lifelines from November 1 would play out at the elections. More than in established newspapers, which it must be said are much more cautious, it is social media sites which are replete with such punditries of self-professed seers and visionaries. As expected on any unregulated forum, these discussions and prophesies are now tending to turn into a pandemonium, full of sound and fury but often signifying nothing much. They often also tend to be accusative, hate filled and vitriolic. But even amidst this din, certain core questions have emerged. Would the blockade hardships and ethnic polarisation the blockade has brought, turn the people against the ruling Congress? Would the BJP’s challenge become any more formidable because of it? How would the creation of new districts impact the electoral fortunes of the parties in contention?

These questions are important and therefore a look at the structure of political establishment in the state may be helpful in attempting to answer them. We all know the Manipur Assembly has 60 seats. Of these 40 are located in the valley inhabited by non-tribal predominantly Hindu Meiteis, and 39 of these are general category and one reserved for scheduled castes. The BJP probably had hoped they would be able to reap a harvest here, partly because of the community’s religious affiliation. We also know twenty seats are in the hills and 19 of these are reserved for scheduled tribes, after the Kangpokpi constituency in the erstwhile SADAR hills came to be de-reserved to accommodate its sizeable population of Nepalis. Of the 20 hill seats, Nagas normally hold sway in 11 to 12. The rest are generally won by Kukis and aligned tribes. Again, considering the BJP government at the Centre is holding peace talks with the NSCN(IM), the state BJP was hoping they would be able to win a majority of the Naga seats as well with the blessings of the militant group. Its main rival here is the Naga People’s Front, which too would be vying for the NSCN(IM)’s support. The Congress which once had a lion’s share of the Naga seats has in the past few months been marginalised badly as the NSCN(IM) and Naga organisations like the UNC are opposed to it, and many Naga Congress MLAs and former ministers thought it prudent to resign from the party ahead of the elections, to salvage any chance of retaining their seats.

The UNC’s blockade which began on November 1, in anticipation of the Manipur government giving in to the long standing demand for upgrading SADAR and Jiribam subdivisions to full-fledged districts, however has upset these equations radically. This became even more so after the government decided during a midnight cabinet sitting on December 8, to defy the UNC’s coercive protest and created not just the two districts the UNC were opposed to, but seven by splitting seven of the state’s nine districts. The UNC considers four of the seven split districts to be part of the ancestral Naga homeland and were quick to accuse the Manipur government of splitting this homeland, although as the government contends, as to how districts can split people is incomprehensible. This is particularly so because Assembly and Parliamentary constituencies have remained untouched. Nonetheless, the state BJP’s worry now is, amidst the current ethnic polarisation, proximity to the NSCN(IM), an organisation avowed to dismemberment Manipur to form a sovereign Greater Nagaland, and the UNC which many consider to be a surrogate of the former, may alienate its support base in the valley where 40 seats are at stake. The Congress chief minister, Okram Ibobi’s move in this sense may be an electoral masterstroke, not for splintering or otherwise of any homeland, but for leaving its rival BJP caught in an unenviable dilemma. This dilemma is visible in the state’s BJP’s muted response to the blockade question, probably not wanting to offend its Central leadership now holding talks with the NSCN(IM). Under the circumstance, if nothing changes the nature of this polarisation, there can be no doubt the Congress’ position is strong in the valley, and Ibobi and his team may have found a way to overcome the anti-incumbency burden of having been 15 continuous years in power.

Things can however change overnight. The examples of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh should not be forgotten. In Assam the BJP defeated the ruling Congress, but only after managing to woo Congress leaders to its camp before the elections. In Arunachal Pradesh, it was by engineering defection after the election. There is no guarantee the Congress in Manipur is not vulnerable similarly. The BJP which currently seems starved of any charismatic leader capable of shaking up the confidence of the ruling Congress, can still do an Assam in the one and half months before the elections or an Arunachal Pradesh later.

Source: Imphal Free Press

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