In the recently concluded Manipur assembly election, the Congress won 28 of the 60 assembly seats to become the single-largest party in the state, followed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which won 21 seats. By the evening of 12 March 2017—the day after the election results were announced—the BJP had the support of the National People’s Party and Naga People’s Front, which won four seats each, and that of the Lok Janshakti Party, Trinamool Congress and one independent member, with one seat each. On 13 March, Najma Heptullah, the state’s governor, asked the Congress’s Okram Ibobi Singh, the incumbent chief minister, to submit his resignation, and invited the BJP-led coalition to form the government and prove their majority on the floor of the house “as soon as possible.” Though he is yet to prove his majority, two days later, N Biren Singh took oath as the new chief minister of Manipur—marking the end of Ibobi’s 15-year tenure, and the start of the BJP’s first-ever rule in the state.
The BJP’s vote share in Manipur increased from two percent in 2012, to 36 percent in 2017. The Congress’s vote share was 35 percent. Manipur comprises 16 districts—ten of which are in the hill regions of the state and six in the valley. Of its 60 constituencies, 40 are in the valley districts, and the remaining in the hill districts. The hill districts are dominated by two of the state’s tribal communities—the Nagas and the Kukis—whereas the Meitei community dominates the valley districts. The prevailing political situation in Manipur leading up to the elections—with an ongoing economic blockade on two national highways and conflicts between the dominant communities—provides an explanation for the BJP’s rise to power in the state.
Manipur went to polls reeling under the effects of an economic blockade that began on 1 November 2016. The United Naga Council, a civil-society organisation of the Naga community of Manipur, enforced the blockade in protest against a state government proposal to create new districts in the Sadar Hills and Jiribam regions in the state. The blockade did not deter the Ibobi-led government, which announced the creation of seven new districts, carved out of the existing nine, in December 2016.
Many in the Kuki community have been demanding the creation of these new districts since the 1970s, as they believe it will improve development and administrative efficiency in the region. The state government justified the creation of the districts on the same grounds. The Naga community’s opposition to the districts dates back to the Kuki’s demand for them. According to the UNC, the creation of the districts reflects an attempt to take away and divide the Nagas’ ancestral lands without their consent—in particular, a part of the Sadar Hills and Jiribam regions, which was carved out from Naga-dominated districts in the state. Tripartite talks as well as calls from various civil societies, church bodies, and concerned citizens failed to convince the UNC to call off the blockade, or the state to revoke the creation of the districts. The blockade severely affected access to essential commodities for people in the state—the price of petrol, for instance, rose up to Rs 300 per litre in November 2016. Sections of the Meitei community in the valley imposed counter-blockades in opposition to the UNC’s actions, and restricted the transport of goods meant for hill districts. This deadlock continued into the election, without any headway.
Amid these complexities, the BJP relied upon the anti-Congress sentiments and made inroads into the hill districts over these issues. During a campaign rally in Imphal on 1 March 2017, Amit Shah, the president of the BJP, said the party “will lift the ongoing economic blockade by any means within 24 hours after forming its government in the state.”
Following the creation of the districts, a factor influencing the votes of the Nagas for the BJP may have been the anti-incumbency sentiment against the Congress. Moreover, as a result of the central government’s framework agreement with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), called the Naga Peace Accord, which aimed at ending the sixty-year-long insurgency in Nagaland, the BJP would have gained the confidence of the Naga community. The Congress, on the other hand, sought to use the accord to accuse the BJP of working in tandem with the UNC and NSCN(IM) to enforce the blockade. The Congress was also dependent on the support of the Kuki community pursuant to the creation of the districts. Out of the six Kuki-dominated constituencies in the hill districts, the Congress won in four, and the BJP in the other two.
The conflict between the valley and the tribal communities in the state had previously escalated over the introduction of an inner-line permit, or ILP—an official document issued by the government to allow an Indian citizen to travel into a restricted or protected area—regime in the state. In August 2015, the Ibobi-led state government passed three bills—the Protection of Manipur People Bill, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill, and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill—without any discussion in the legislative assembly. The bills proposed to bring the state under a regime of the inner-line permit, and regulate in the influx of outsiders into the state. While the ILP regime has active support from the Meitei community, the Kukis and the Nagas have opposed the demand because they view the ILP and the bills as a threat to their rights over their land and identity. The central government eventually returned the bills to the state government for re-examination in June 2016, and they were subsequently not enacted into law.
The manner in which the three contentious bills were passed to ease the implementation of the ILP led to an outbreak of violence in the Churachandpur hill district in September 2015. Nine people belonging to various tribal communities, including the Kuki community, were killed during the protests against the bills. They came to be known as the “tribal martyrs” in the district—the families of eight of the slain protestors have continued to refuse to accept their bodies from the morgue as a mark of protest. The anti-Congress sentiments of the district’s residents were reflected in the election. The BJP was voted to power in Churachandpur with 10,246 votes, against the 535 votes received by the Congress.
To suggest that the BJP united the Manipur electorate’s sentiments would be simplistic. Though nine of the 20 hill constituencies are Naga-dominated, out of the five hill constituencies in which the BJP won, Tamenglong was the only Naga-dominated constituency. The Congress, on the other hand, secured nine seats from the hill districts, three of which were in Naga-dominated constituencies. Despite the creation of the districts, Gaikhangam Gangmei, the former deputy chief minister under the Congress government, went on to regain his seat in Nungba, a Naga-dominated constituency in the hill district. The Congress also won 19 seats in the valley. All four seats won by the NPF belonged to the Naga-dominated constituencies. A context such as this partially negates the larger political issue of the hills and the valley. It is possible that the work of the previously elected members and their assurances in this election played into the the larger political factors for the electorate. This also indicates a lack of unity both among the various ethnic communities and within them, in matters relating to larger social, economic and political issues.
The BJP government in the state will certainly have the difficult task of carrying the hill-valley politics on its back. The immediate concern before the BJP would be to resolve the issue of the blockade and the new districts. In this regard, the Naga Peace Accord will become relevant, requiring the BJP to play a balancing act between the sentiments of the communities from the hills and valleys. Moreover, the NPF, with its four seats, may utilise the coalition to put forth their demands and concerns, such as the revocation of the newly-created districts. The upcoming days in Manipur could see an invigorated political environment, where every stakeholder will pitch their demands.
The electoral outcome in Manipur is contextual, and cannot be explained within the political narrative currently governing the nation. People who have voted for the BJP in the state have not done so due to its Hindutva narrative. In fact, it is possible that the hill communities perceived the actions of the Congress regime in the state as akin to right-wing politics. For Manipur, the only path forward is for the government to pay careful attention to the existing relations of the people within the state in order to work towards a peaceful co-existence of the communities within the state.
Richard Kamei is a PhD candidate at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.