Manipur: Despite the crowds & witty jibes, Modi might have failed to ensure a win by BJP

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Modi may have appeared to have a successful rally in Manipur. The BJP pulled all stops, defying boycott calls by rebels, successfully mobilised a crowd 15-20,000, large by Manipuri standards. His jibes were also hard hitting “The Manipur chief minister is known as Mr. 10% we need a chief minister who is 0%.”. And yet, at the end of the day, all this fell drastically short to ensuring his party win in Manipur.

He failed to address the burning issue of the majority community – the Meiteis occupying the valley districts, who have the biggest say in the polls – most wanted to hear. This was the framework agreement signed between his government and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) (NSCN I-M) on August 3, 2015, which has since been kept under wraps.

For some time now, the BJP has been working on a poll strategy largely based on anti-incumbency sentiment against the Ibobi Singh government. It was when it thought things had reached a tipping point, that the state government threw a googly. The BJP’s unpreparedness in dealing with the surprise quickly indicates that its poll strategists lacked a deep understanding of the ground realities that form the social and political fabric of the state. Worse still, the party underestimated Ibobi Singh.

Interestingly, Ibobi Singh’s strategy to outdo the BJP looks like he has borrowed tools from the same box that the BJP used for the assembly polls in Assam – ethnic assertion of the majority community.

While in Assam, the BJP poll strategists played on the “jati mati bheti” (ethnicity, land and base) planks to seek a “poriborton” (change) from the 15-year-old Congress government. In Manipur, they tried to play the “development” and “clean government” cards in the disturbed and backward state. Modi’s February 25 speech largely hinged on those points.

However, the Congress chose to play the BJP’s “jati mati bheti” plank in Manipur, knowing well that in the northeast, ethnic assertion and the majority communities’ insecurity would be a far better unifier than “development”. In fact, there were numerous examples to aid the state government’s decision – the inner line permit (ILP) movement, the demand for scheduled tribe status for the Meiteis, protests against the “secret” part of the framework agreement in the form of placards that said “R N Ravi go back” – when he visited Imphal a couple of times in 2015 and 2016 to consult civil society groups representing the Meitei and Kuki communities on the framework agreement, without giving out the “secret” part.

So, if the BJP played on the Assamese bias against “illegal Bangladeshis”  to wrest the state from the Congress, the Congress in Manipur has targeted the ire of the Meiteis – and also the Kukis – against the Nagas to reclaim power.

However, it is important to note a nuance in the Congress’s approach. Targeting the Meiteis and Kukis’ ire towards the Nagas was not aimed at the entire community, but mainly at the two communities hatred of the NSCN (I-M) and its supreme leader Th. Muivah –  a Thankgul Naga from Manipur. He is a highly unpopular figure among the Meiteis and  Kukis and they consider him the main propagator of the greater Nagalim demand – that talks of uniting the Naga areas of Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh into a single whole.

Ibobi Singh also simultaneously reworked the organisational part of the state Congress. Kuki leader T. N. Haokip was made the head of the Manipur Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC), replacing Gaikhangam Gangmei, a Naga, while he continued as the deputy chief minister. Gaikhangam, a Rongmei Naga, is also considered to be opposed to the NSCN (I-M) and the United Naga Council (UNC), an organisation seen as close to Muivah.

The change of guard at the MPCC also put to rest a rebellion brewing among the Congress MLAs, seen by some political observers in the state as “fuelled” by the BJP “to destabilise the state government before the elections.”

In August 2015, the state assembly also passed three bills with clever phrasing that weighed heavily in favour of the Meiteis and their land rights. The move might have triggered violence in Churachandpur, the largest hill district of the state, giving the BJP an opportunity to try and gain ground in that area but in turn, it helped the Congress gain further credence among the Meiteis – and gradually among the Kukis too. Thus, there too, the Congress poll strategists scored over those of the BJP.

Read full article: HERE

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