Manipur poll: Will double-engine govt deliver for BJP?

Manipur poll: Will double-engine govt deliver for BJP?

There is considerable discontent within the BJP over the distribution of tickets. Several BJP leaders believe that CM Biren Singh has given tickets only to the people who were close to him. A significant number of BJP rebels have now joined the Janata Dal (United). The party is actually counting on leaders who have defected from the Congress.

Sayantan GhoshUpdated: Wednesday, February 23, 2022, 09:09 AM IST
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(PTI Photo)

While the headlines and media coverage are full of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab elections, an interesting poll battle is going on in Manipur. Despite being the ruling party, winning a majority in this election on its own will not be an easy task for the Bharatiya Janata Party. The outcome of the Manipur election will really prove whether the concept of a double-engine government can bring in the votes or not.

Until 2017, the BJP had a negligible presence in the north-eastern state of Manipur. However, in the 2017 election, it formed the government with the help of two regional political parties, the Naga People’s Front and the National People’s Party. But this time, the BJP is going solo in the state polls.

Manipur has a legislative assembly of 60 seats and will go to the polls on February 28 and March 5. In 2000, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, the party got six seats, with around 11 per cent of the vote share. However, with time, the BJP became insignificant in the state. Firstly, the idea of Hindutva preached by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP does not fit in with the religious culture of Manipur. Secondly, being a border state with a significant history of insurgency and ethnic struggle, the hyper-nationalism push also does not work much.

But after Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, the political equation of the state started to change. The weakening of the Congress Party helped the BJP establish its base in Manipur. A party that earlier had a negligible presence in the state received 36.28 per cent votes in the 2017 assembly election, whereas the Congress got 35.11 per cent votes.

The key issue in Manipur is development and employment. In the last two years, during the pandemic, the economy of the state was massively hit. The revival of the economy is the need of the hour for Manipur. The BJP government at the Centre has understood that such a massive revival without help from the Centre will not be possible. Thereafter, the party has focused on preaching development ideas along with promises to bring peace.

This time, the BJP is fighting the election with a campaign focussed on the need for a double-engine government that can bring development, improve infrastructure and bring peace to the state. After Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister,in 2016,the state got its first broad-gauge train.This year, Manipur got its first Jan Shatabdi express. The Congress, on the other hand, claims that the infrastructure for these developments was put in place in the Congress era.

The Congress ruled Manipur for several years, just like it did other north-eastern states. Okram Ibobi Singh of the Congress has been a three-time CM and this time also, the party is fighting under his leadership. But the ground reality is that the party has not been able to counter the BJP’s discourse as it does not have a government at the Centre and there are several allegations against previous governments. Okram Ibobi Singh and his family are under investigation by Central agencies for alleged corruption.

Meanwhile, the Narendra Modi government has brought around 13 massive developmental projects to the state. Recently, the Prime Minister himself inaugurated many of these projects. Significantly, current CM N Biren Singh has joined the BJP from the Congress. But after becoming the CM, he has brought in some unique initiatives like ‘Go To Village’ and ‘Go To Hills’. On the ground, these schemes have elicited positive responses from the people.

Despite the many positives, there are several issues harming the BJP. These issues are so serious that they might become the cause of the party not getting a majority. There is considerable discontent within the BJP over the distribution of tickets. Several BJP leaders believe that CM Biren Singh has given tickets only to the people who were close to him. A significant number of BJP rebels have now joined the Janata Dal (United).

The BJP is actually counting on leaders who have defected from the Congress -- in this election, around 11 MLAs who were earlier with the Congress have received BJP tickets. The party has allegedly sidelined the BJP stalwarts in the state. The disenchanted leaders have now joined other political parties.

It is true that in Bihar, the JDU is part of the NDA but in Manipur, their stand is not clear. On the other hand, the NPP has decided to fight in 38 seats and has been strongly attacking the BJP. Whereas in Meghalaya the NPP is with the BJP, in Manipur, they have taken a strong anti-BJP stand.

In Manipur, there is a divide between the culture and religion of the plains and the hills. The plains are mostly Hindu-dominated. However, a majority of the Hindus of Manipur are Vaishnavite while others practise Sanamahism (ancestor-worship). The Meitei constitute the major Hindu ethnic group of Manipur. The state has 41.39 per cent Hindus, 41.29 per cent Christians, 9 per cent Muslims and over 8 per cent follow tribal religion. The hills of Manipur have a significant population of Nagas, making the Naga People’s Front the strongest party in the hills. In the hills of Manipur, the issue is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). A repeal of this Act has been a longstanding demand of Manipur citizens. In its manifesto, the Congress party has promised to repeal the AFSPA if voted into power. However, the BJP has made no such promise in its manifesto. Interestingly, while talking to this writer, leaders from both the BJP and Congress party have said that in this election, the issue of AFSPA will not take the centre stage. Earlier, the Congress used to have a significant presence in the hills. For the BJP to win the state on its own, significant support from both the hills and plains must be forthcoming, which seems a bit difficult because of its stand on the AFSPA.

Manipur is a complex and diverse state. The BJP is new to Manipur politics and if it wins this election on its own steam, the concept of the double-engine government will be strengthened, proving that this idea is a vote-puller. However, for a hardcore rightwing political party like the BJP, Manipur is not a very favourable state, so there is a lower probability of its winning this election by going it alone. In the end, it will be the BJP’s horse-trading and alliance-making capabilities that will determine the party’s fate.

(The author is an independent journalist based in Kolkata and former policy research fellow, Delhi Assembly Research Centre. He tweets as @sayantan_gh. Views expressed are personal)

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