Manipur Elections: One Week Till Ballots Cast
The original version of the article was published on 23rd February in “The Daily Guardian”
With one week left for the first phase of Assembly polls in Manipur, all parties have amped up their campaigning in order to woo voters in the northeastern state. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the state in 2017, after successfully forging a post-poll alliance with various regional parties. The BJP joined hands with the Naga People’s Front (NPF), National Peoples’ Party (NPP) and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) forming the government in the state, with N Biren Singh as the Chief Minister. In 2017, the Indian National Congress (INC), emerged as the single largest party with 28 seats in the 60 member assembly, with a vote share of 35.11 per cent. Despite winning the highest number of seats, the INC lost power in the state for the first time in 15 years. This time, wrestling to win back power in the state, the INC has stitched an alliance with four Left parties and the Janata Dal (Secular) to compete in the 2022 polls. Regional parties, including the NPF and NPP which allied with the BJP in the 2017 polls, have announced they will be contesting the 2022 polls single-handedly.
However, in the last few weeks, the state has witnessed several instances of pre-poll violence across constituencies. On 20 February 2022, an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded in Manipur’s Kakching district, injuring two police personnel. Just a few days prior to the incident, on 18 February, the father of a National People’s Party (NPP) candidate was shot at. The incident triggered clashes between members of the NPP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), injuring six more people. On 14 February, an Indian National Congress (INC) candidate Lemkim Haokip was attacked when hoisting her election flag at her residence. While the Shiv Sena said in a statement that five vehicles had been destroyed in Keirao Assembly constituency last week, Manipur Joint Chief Election Officer, S Daulat Khan said on 19 February that incidents of similar pre-poll violence have been reported from ten constituencies so far, and the Election Commission has increased the deployment of security personnel prior to the polls scheduled for next week.
While such pre-poll incidents are common in Manipur’s electoral history, parties are using these incidents to highlight the unstable law and order situation in the state and attack each other for not allowing the electoral process to be conducted in a peaceful manner.
2022: BJP Fighting Anti-Incumbency
The ruling BJP announced its list of candidates from all 60 constituencies last month and will be contesting independently from the state, without any pre-poll alliance with the NPF or the NPEP. The party also announced that incumbent Chief Minister N Biren Singh will continue as the Chief Minister of the state, and he will contest from his traditional Heingang seat, from which he has been elected since 2002. The party faced backlash from party workers and members after the announcement of its list of candidates, leading to protests by the party cadre. In the list of candidates, ten former Congress members (amongst the 16 MLAs) who left the party to join the BJP have received tickets to contest.
The BJP, just like in other states, is banking on its “double engine” poll plank to win the election in the state. The party has also promised a series of freebies to win voters over in the northeastern state, including an increase in the monthly pension of senior citizens, increased financial support to farmers under the PM-KISAN scheme, free accidental insurance to fishermen, scholarships to children of farmers, and the application of the “Aspirational Districts” and the “One Sub-Division, One Product” programmes in the state.
INC: Alliance with Left Parties
The Congress, along with the CPI, CPI(M), Forward Block, RSP and JD(S), announced a pre-poll alliance called the Manipur Progressive Secular Alliance (MPSA), two weeks ahead of the Assembly elections in the state on 6 February. The MPSA launched an 18-point common agenda of the alliance, which includes, saving the “territorial integrity of Manipur” and the historical boundaries of the state, free healthcare law, unemployment allowance to youth, along with a livelihood income to every family. The alliance also announced it will ensure full implementation of Article 371(c) of the Indian Constitution, along with universal access to safe drinking water and uninterrupted power supply, and the fight against the drug menace. The parties have also announced they will repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 if they are voted back to power in the state. Jairam Ramesh, the party’s senior election observer for Manipur, said the manifesto was about survival and revival of the State.
JD(U): Staging a Comeback
One of the biggest surprises ahead of the 2022 polls in the state has been the resurgence of Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), majorly armed by rebels from both the BJP and INC. The party has announced it will be contesting 39 of the 60 seats in the assembly. Although the JD(S) is an ally of the BJP in Bihar, it is taking the party head-on in Manipur. Some of the high profile names that the JD(U) has on its side include a former chief secretary and former Deputy General of Police, and Brinda Devi, a dynamic lady cop known for a crusade against illegal drugs who left her job to join the police and is a youth icon of sorts in the state.
Other important members of the party include Khumukcham Joykisan, a prominent BJP leader, who switched to the Congress in 2017 and gained popularity. The party suspended him recently, prompting his switchover to the JD(U). Like other parties, the JD(U) has also promised to scrap the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA), a hot-button issue in the state. It has also promised 50 per cent reservation to women in panchayats if voted to power.
The JD(U)’s entrance into the political fray in Manpur has transformed the elections into a multi-cornered battle, with many analysts and observers stating the party could take on the role of kingmaker in the case of a hung assembly.
NPP & NPF: Smaller Parties to be Key
Both regional parties, NPP and NPF were critical to the BJP’s victory in the state in 2017. The NPP and the NPF had won four seats each in the 2017 election. Neither party has announced a pre-poll alliance with any party, hoping to improve their political performance. The NPP is contesting 38 seats, while the NPF is restricted to ten seats in the Naga-inhabited hills.
NPP’s ties with the BJP have frayed severely, with the NPP President Conrad K. Sangma stating “the extreme poll violence in the state and against NPP members reflects the frustration of certain individuals” and accused the BJP of not honouring coalition dharma. While the BJP has denied indulging in violence or using armed groups, given the state of relations between the two parties, a post-poll alliance looks unlikely.
Several political analysts and observers have said smaller political parties such as the NPP and BPF could be key to the formation of the government in the state if the two-phase Assembly elections yield a fractured verdict.
Shreya Maskara/New Delhi
Contributing reports by Damini Mehta, Senior Research Associate at Polstrat and Abhinav Nain and Akhil Chirravuri, Interns at Polstrat.
From Polstrat, a non-partisan political consultancy which aims to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.