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Change and stability factor in tough Manipur electoral battle

By Shankar Kumar

January 30, 2017

Reading the electoral leaves, Congress may trip in Manipur polls

Remaining always in the grip of crisis out of militancy, fake encounters, territorial integrity, blockades and violence, Manipur today symbolizes chaos and unpredictability. According to an estimate, more than 46 per cent of people in Manipur are below the poverty line. Agriculture is the mainstay of people’s life in this hilly state. Known for its beautiful natural surroundings, the Northeastern state has failed to become tourists’ hotspot. Therefore, when Manipur goes for election for 60 assembly seats in two phases-on March 4 and 8—it has a chance to script a new political life. As for the first time, since the state was created in the 1970s, there is going to be a direct contest between the ruling Congress and the new entrant, the BJP. But romping home the polls could be challenging for these two major players as People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) which is headed by Irom Sharmila, the ‘Iron Lady’ who waged 16-year long fight against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) by undertaking fast, is in the fray. However, people in the state have a concern for stability. For the past 15 years since Congress government headed by Okram Ibobi Singh has been in the power in Manipur, instability has been out of the state’s political boundary. Therefore, past trend of three assembly polls suggests that the state may not witness fractured verdict or hung assembly when the election takes place and votes are counted on March 11.

Which party will win?

There is a pro-change wave in the state. And this is out of deepening frustration among people with poor law and order situation, lack of employment opportunity and dearth of infrastructure, including roads. Even on the Republic Day, when the entire country was submerged in the joy of festivity, this Northeastern state along with Assam was rocked with insurgents-triggered bomb blasts. Tribal of the state is already simmering in discontent following Chief Minister Ibobi Singh’s decision to create 7 new districts by dividing 9 existing ones in December last year. They feel that bifurcation has resulted in encroachment of their ancestral lands and that it has been facilitated with aim to derive electoral mileage, an allegation which has been refuted by the state Chief Minister. His stand is that formation of the new districts has been done purely for the administrative convenience and not with aim to gain any electoral mileage. This bifurcation took place even as tribal belonging to Meitei community and others were up in arms against the government’s decision to pass three bills in 2015: The Protection of Manipur People Bill, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (7th Amendment) Bill and the Manipur Shops and Establishment (2nd Amendment) Bill. Passage led to huge protests by tribal student groups in August and September 2015 in areas like Churachandpur. The police over-reacted and fired bullets on protesting students, leading to death of 9 protesters. More than 500 days have passed since these protesters were killed, but tribal have refused to bury them, thereby, becoming a major poll issue. Amid such developments, Ibobi Singh is finding it hard to stop desertion of leaders from his party. Several Congress MLAs of its total 42 members in the Manipur assembly are against him. A few months ago, the Congress was forced to remove the party’s state president after 25 MLAs revolted against him. Thereby, smelling trouble in the Congress camp, the BJP is trying to en-cash on palpable resentment among people against the Congress leadership in the state. It has poached on several Congress dissenters in the party and has given tickets to them, but for the short term of gain, the saffron party is not visualizing the problem waiting to affect it. If the party wins and forms a government, there is no guarantee it would last given the ambition of each individual political leader in the state. If Ibobi Singh has managed to save his government from the scare of instability for fifteen years, then it is because of the fact that he keeps on rotating the party MLAs for ministerial berths. Nonetheless, the BJP seems to have slightly an edge over the Congress in the state.

Political strategy of each political party

Ruling the state for 15 years in a row, the Congress knows ways to reaching out to voters. Development, stability and employment are three major planks of the party. Bifurcation of hilly districts of states was taken by the ruling establishment with aim to debunk anti-incumbency. It is also reeling out list of development works it has carried out in the past 15 years especially in the health, power and connectivity areas. Learning lessons from its past mistakes and also from Imphal civic polls where the party, despite all efforts could not stop the BJP from winning 10 seats, the Congress is not leaving any stone unturned to win majority seats in the forthcoming assembly election. In contrast, the Congress could bag only 12 seats in Imphal civic election, held in June 2016. On the other hand, contrary to the initial perception that the BJP would not able to create its base in the state because of its complex social and community composition, the saffron party has thrust in all energy and talent to win majority Meteis, minority Kukis and Nagas. To win public confidence, the saffron party has promised to probe all 1528 fake encounters which took place across the hilly state in the last 15 years. It has also promised to award different road projects amounting to Rs 22,000 crore to the state. Regarding usual imposition of economic blockades and bandh by insurgents, the party has promised to make such anti-people measures a close chapter, once it forms a government in the state. But it is Irom Sharmila headed PRJA which appears ready to give major outfits like the Congress and the BJP a run for their money. The party has perhaps become the first female dominated outfit in the country as 40 per cent PRJA candidates and executive members are women. By making withdrawal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) a core part of its various demands, the party is seriously trying to win women voters to the party’s fold.

Key electoral issues

Implementation of strict law and order, protection of indigenous people’s rights, unemployment and development of the state are key electoral issues.

Key players

Chief Minister Ibobi Singh, Gaikhangam, Debendra Singh, Irom Sharmila, Phungzathang Tonsing, Hemochandra Singh, Govindas Konthoujam, M Okendro, Ratnakar Singh, Mirabai Devi and Abdul Nasir.

Conclusion

Going by past records, it shows that Manipur like majority of Northeastern states, has a tendency of bringing into power the same party which rules the Centre. That means if change in the state’s political establishment takes place, it would be on the expected lines. But then this is worrying sign for the party which is ruling the state for more than a decade- and- half. Nothing can be said in concrete terms. People may also look for stability and this may suit the Congress’ bill as it has been able to provide stable government in this crisis-filled state for three consecutive terms in row. Yet whatever may be the result of the election, it will set the record.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed are of those of the author and do not represent the views of Elections.in.

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