By Arun Regi Chacko
The north-eastern state of Manipur that went to the polls along with the likes of India’s most populous states – Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Goa – might spring surprises once again if the two-phase assembly polls throw a fractured mandate, similar to that of 2017. The 2017 assembly elections to Manipur legislative assembly yielded a hung assembly, which led to the state witnessing a series of dramatic events. Despite emerging as the single largest party and falling just three seats short of a simple majority in the house, the grand old party of India, the Indian National Congress (INC), which ruled the state for fifteen consecutive years, failed to form the government in the state. On the other hand, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cobbled up a coalition of other key parties and staked its claim to the government formation, despite being short of the majority by around ten seats on its own.
Though the Congress won 28 seats in the elections, followed by the BJP with 21 seats, the latter stitched a coalition with the Nagaland People’s Front, the National People’s Party (NPP) and the lone legislators of the LJP, AITC and an independent legislator. However, the dramatic turn of events continued where the once-dominant party of Manipur, the Congress, witnessed mass defections from its legislative party and its rank and file. Similar to the state of Goa, Manipur too witnessed the politics of defection, which was in every sense undermining the ethos of the democratic setup our nation stands for.
The rise of the BJP in the state can be attributed to the series of defections from the Congress, Trinamool Congress and other parties to BJP before the 2017 polls. It is also to be noted that the north-eastern region has often exhibited a tendency to vote for the party in power at the Centre. However, clan, tribal and community loyalty remains a significant factor in determining the outcome of the elections. The Congress, which was once dominant in the entire north-eastern region, has been reduced to political margins all across the region, with them being almost non-existent in states like Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and even Meghalaya. The dwindling fortunes of the grand old party can be read along with the rise of BJP’s influence in these states, either on its own or on piggybacking on alliance partners like NPP in Meghalaya and Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) in Nagaland.
Even though the BJP has set a target of winning forty seats in the assembly and the Congress expressed confidence in coming back to power, political analysts across the spectrum are not dismissing the chances of an emergence of a hung assembly, where the minor yet important players might once again hold the key to the formation of the government (ET Bureau, 2022). The electorate in every assembly constituency is comparatively smaller, facilitating individuals or minor parties to register wins based on the charisma or personal aura of the candidate rather than the party. However, the chances of a hung assembly or a fractured verdict cannot be attributed to this fact alone. There is also a pronounced hill-valley distinction based on tribal and non-tribal dichotomy, which is a predominant factor shaping the outcome of the elections.
The Imphal valley, which accounts for around one-tenth of the state’s total area, has a higher population than the hills and accounts for forty of the sixty assembly seats. The hills, on the other hand, comprises twenty assembly segments, where nineteen of them are reserved for Scheduled Tribes. The Valley population is dominated by non-tribal Meitei, mostly Hindus, whereas the hill population consists of predominantly Christian Naga and Kuki ethnic groups. These distinctive identities play a significant role in the electoral fortunes of every player in these elections (Phanjoubam, 2022).
The Naga People’s Front (NPF) role has been limited to the Naga pockets of the hills. However, they do play a significant role in case of a hung assembly similar to 2017. The NPP and NPF though part of the ruling coalition led by the BJP, are separately fighting these polls in order to emerge as powerful kingmakers during the post-election scenario and also to cater to these distinctive as well as conflicting identities. The Congress lost out the goodwill among the Naga population owing to its move to carve new districts out of the area which the Nagas consider part of their ancestral homeland in 2016, ceding to the demands of the non-Naga communities. This, along with the Ibobi Singh regime’s decision to block the entry of NSCN (IM) leader T. Muivah to his ancestral village marred the image of the Congress. These two factors played a crucial role in Congress losing support among the Nagas, and the rise of NPF to prominence in the area. Though the NPF is contesting in just ten assembly segments in the 2022 polls, they are likely to emerge victorious in a fair share of them, as they are considered a symbol of Naga nationalism, and they cater to the demands and emotions of the community.
The emergence of NPP in the region is also said to be at the cost of the once dominant Congress. The Conrad Sangma led party has been emerging as a critical player in the north-eastern region. The party that won four seats out of the nine it contested in 2017 is flexing its muscles this time by competing in a large number of seats and might also play a significant role in the post-poll scenario if neither of the major parties crosses the majority mark on its own. The Bihar Chief Minister (CM) Nitish Kumar led Janata Dal (United) – JD(U) has also thrown their hats into the electoral arena of Manipur, hoping to emerge as a key player in a state where they were a non-existent entity in the previous elections. The hopes of JD(U) is pinned upon the defectors who joined the party from BJP and Congress during the runup to the polls, the likes of firebrand leaders like Kh Joykishan Singh, BJP MLA K. Biren and so on (Karmakar, 2022).
Even though the NPF and NPP were partners in the ruling coalition headed by BJP’s N. Biren Singh as the CM, they are fighting the polls separately as they can emerge as a key player again in case of a hung assembly and fetch a greater bargain, as they have kept their options open by not aligning with any major party going to the elections. In addition to this, they also disagree over certain key issues like the repeal of AFSPA, which is a long-standing demand of NPF. NPP and JD(U) have also put forth an anti-AFSPA stance in their manifesto, gauging the widespread public sentiment against the Act. All the non-BJP and non-Congress parties try to stay politically relevant in their respective pocket boroughs and emerge as crucial players in the post-poll scenario by going alone to the polls. The stakes of these parties will be high during the results, as a fractured mandate may open them a road to the seat of power with a greater say in governance aspects. However, a decisive victory for either of the major parties can dash their hopes and may even cast a spell on the survival of these parties.
Arun Regi Chacko is Election Studies Intern at Centre for Public Policy Research. Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
Featured Image Courtesy: India.com
ET Bureau. (2022). Manipur polls 2022: Fate of Congress and BJP could hinge on smaller yet formidable players—The Economic Times. https://m.economictimes.com/news/elections/assembly-elections/manipur/manipur-polls-2022-fate-of-congress-and-bjp-could-hinge-on-smaller-yet-formidable-players/amp_articleshow/89690207.cms
Karmakar, R. (2022, February 5). JD(U) gains after defections from BJP, Cong. In Manipur. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/elections/manipur-assembly/jdu-gains-after-defections-from-bjp-cong-in-manipur/article38378882.ece
Phanjoubam, P. (2022). Manipur’s Sharp Ethnic Fault-Lines Hold the Key to the Assembly Election. The Wire. https://thewire.in/politics/manipurs-sharp-ethnic-fault-lines-hold-the-key-to-the-election