On February 25, voters in the hill areas of Manipur received an “appeal” on which party to vote for. It came in the form of an open letter from an umbrella organisation of militant outfits known as the Kuki National Organisation which has an armed wing called the Kuki National Army.
The organisation’s advice was clear: vote for the BJP, or else. The letter helpfully added, “Any person or organisation acting contrary to this appeal will be deemed acting against Kuki interests.”
Essentially, voters were receiving a threat from the group, which has been in talks with the home ministry in Delhi – a fact subsequently brought to the attention of the Election Commission in a , to no avail.
The KNO had openly “campaigned” for the BJP in the Lok Sabha poll in 2019 as well, allegedly threatening village chiefs with dire consequences if less than 90 percent of the vote went to , the BJP’s Benjamin Mate. Mate had overcome internal rivals to receive the BJP ticket after his candidature was recommended by militant groups. The president of one of these groups, the Zomi Reunification Organisation, wrote a letter to home minister Amit Shah saying they would be “grateful if you can kindly award the BJP party ticket to Shri H Sokhopao Benjamin Mate...for the Outer Manipur Constituency”.
Mate duly got the BJP ticket. However, despite the open threats, he lost the poll. He was defeated by the Naga People’s Front candidate Lorho Pfoze. While Mate had the support of the broader grouping of tribes to which he belongs (the Kuki, Chin and Zomi), Lorho was backed by the Naga tribes and their associated militant outfits, which includes the National Socialist Council of Nagaland’s Isak-Muivah faction – the most powerful such group which has also been in peace talks with the government of India since 1997.
Politics in Manipur is largely communal, with the jostling for power being between the three major communities of the state – the Meitei, Naga and Kuki. In the Manipur hills, the principal rivalry in politics, both overground and underground, is between the Kuki and Naga groups of tribes. Of the 60 seats in the Manipur assembly, about 10 each are in the hills dominated by the Kuki and Naga tribes respectively, while the remaining 40 are in the Imphal valley where the predominantly Hindu, non-tribal Meitei community are the majority. Three seats in the valley have large Muslim populations, mainly of the indigenous Meitei Muslims known as Pangals. One seat in the hills close to Imphal, Kangpokpi, also has a large Gorkha population.
Given their numerical majority, it is common for chief ministers of Manipur to come from the Meitei community. Thus, both former CM Okram Ibobi Singh of the Congress and current CM Biren Singh of the BJP are Meiteis. So is Yumnam Joykumar Singh of the National People’s Party. Biswajit Singh, who is Biren Singh’s rival for the post of CM within the BJP, is also a Meitei.
Ideology counts for little in the politics of Northeast India. It is common for MLAs to switch parties to align with whichever party is in power in Delhi. For example, in 2014, the Congress won 44 seats out of 60 in the Arunachal Pradesh assembly. By 2016, 43 of these 44 Congress MLAs had joined the BJP.
A version of this happened in Manipur as well, where the Congress had emerged as the single largest party after the last assembly election in 2017, winning 28 seats in the house of 60. The BJP was far behind with 21, but managed to form the government with the support of the NPP and the NPF, who had four seats each. Defections from the Congress, including even the president of the state unit, have swelled the BJP numbers since.
But despite all the traffic of MLAs going the BJP’s way, Biren Singh’s government has had a rather shaky ride. Two years ago, it appeared close to collapse when it was reduced to a minority after nine MLAs supporting it, including all four from the NPP, withdrew support. This came after Singh stripped his deputy, Joykumar Singh of the NPP, and the other NPP ministers of their portfolios. Frantic negotiations involving home minister Amit Shah, Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma and Meghalaya CM and NPP chief Conrad Sangma, apart from the warring Manipur leaders, followed and the government somehow survived. A year before that, in June 2019, Singh had survived an even bigger rebellion when 17 of the state’s 21 BJP MLAs had sought a change in the Manipur BJP leadership. On that occasion, the issue had festered for months but Singh had miraculously survived thanks to the support of Shah and prime minister Narendra Modi.
The BJP therefore goes into this poll a divided house. The announcement of its candidates saw an exodus from the party as disappointed ticket aspirants left along with thousands of their supporters. Effigies of Singh and Modi were burnt in some places, and a few party offices sacked by those quitting. These disgruntled BJP rejects have now made their way to one or the other of the party’s rivals in Manipur, which includes its ally, the NPP, and a party that emerged almost overnight in the state after the recent exodus – the Janata Dal (United) of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. This is a party that did not even contest the last assembly election in Manipur and had no presence worth the name until about one month ago. Now, it is putting up candidates, including four sitting and several former MLAs, in 38 seats. Interestingly, despite the known opposition of several of its high-profile candidates to Singh, the JDU has not put up any candidate against the chief minister.
Given the presence of at least five parties – BJP, Congress, NPP, NPF and JDU – that can be expected to win a number of seats, the chances of any single party crossing the halfway mark on its own appear slim. In the event of a hung assembly, various permutations and combinations become possible. For example, Meghalaya’s NPP government led by Sangma currently has the unique distinction of being supported by both BJP and Congress MLAs. It is quite possible that the NPP in Manipur, led by Joykumar Singh, an old associate of former Congress chief minister Ibobi Singh, would be open to aligning with him. Similarly, the JDU is being viewed by observers in Manipur as a creation of the BJP itself – a “B” team to accommodate those who, for one reason or another, could not stand on BJP tickets but are amenable to supporting a BJP government.
The tendency of politicians in Northeast India to support whichever party is in power in Delhi (because that is where government funds come from) means that the BJP will have an advantage even if they finish second, as they did last time. Militant groups, many of which have long associations with India’s home ministry, also follow this trend. The jockeying, in the event of a hung assembly, will therefore hinge on who would be chief minister. Personalities and egos count for a lot in Manipur. The incumbent Biren Singh has been unpopular with his allies, such as the NPP, and with many in the BJP, which he has filled with turncoats from the Congress, of which he himself is one. When and if fresh deals are struck following a hung verdict, his stint of miraculous survival will be challenged afresh by potential allies.
Absent a majority, Manipur may see the rise of a new CM.
This story is part of the NL Sena project which our readers contributed to. It was made possible by Abel Sajaykumar, Devaki Khanna, Subhrajit Chakraborty, Somok Gupta Roy, Sathya, Shubhankar Mondal, Sourav Agrawal, Karthik, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Uma Rajagopalan, HS Kahlon, Shreya Sethuraman, Vinod Gubbala, Anirban Bhattacharjee, Rahul Gupta, Rejith Rajan, Abhishek Thakur, Rathindranath Das, Farzana Hasan, Animesh Narayan, A J, Nidhi Manchanda, Rahul Bhardwaj, Kirti Mishra, Sachin Tomar, Raghav Nayak, Rupa Banerjee, Akash Mishra, Sachin Chaudhary, Udayan Anand, Karan Mujoo, Gaurab S Dutta, Jayanta Basu, Abhijnan Jha, Ashutosh Mittal, Sahit Koganti, Ankur, Sindhu Kasukurthy, Manas, Akshay Sharma, Mangesh Sharma, Vivek Maan, Sandeep Kumar, Rupa Mukundan, P Anand, Nilkanth Kumar, Noor Mohammed, Shashi Ghosh, Vijesh Chandera, Rahul Kohli, Janhavi G, Dr Prakhar Kumar, Ashutosh Singh, Saikat Goswami, Sesha Sai T V, Srikant Shukla, Abhishek Thakur, Nagarjuna Reddy, Jijo George, Abhijit, Rahul Dixit, Praveen Surendra, Madhav Kaushish, Varsha Chidambaram, Pankaj, Mandeep Kaur Samra, Dibyendu Tapadar, Hitesh Vekariya, Akshit Kumar, Devvart Poddar, Amit Yadav, Harshit Raj, Lakshmi Srinivasan, Atinderpal Singh, Jaya Mitra, Raj Parab, Ashraf Jamal, Asif Khan, Manish Kumar Yadav, Saumya Parashar, Naveen Kumar Prabhakar, Lezo, Sanjay Dey, Ahmad Zaman, Mohsin Jabir, Sabina, Suresh Uppalapati, Bhaskar Dasgupta, Pradyut Kumar, Sai Sindhuja, Swapnil Dey, Sooraj, Aparajit Varkey, Brendon Joseph D’souza, Zainab Jabri, Tanay Arora, Jyoti Singh, M Mitra, Aashray Agur, Imran, Dr. Anand Kulkarni, Sagar Kumar, Sandeep Banik, Mohd Salman, Sakshi, Navanshu Wadhwani, Arvind Bhanumurthy, Dhiren Maheshwari, Sanjeev Menon, Anjali Dandekar, Farina Ali Kurabarwala, Abeera Dubey, Ramesh Jha, Namrata, Pranav Kumar, Amar Nath, Anchal, Sahiba Lal, Jugraj Singh, Nagesh Hebbar, Ashutosh Mhapne, Sai Krishna, Deepam Gupta, Anju Chauhan, Siddhartha Jain, Avanish Dureha, Varun Singhal, Akshay, Sainath Jadhav, Shreyas Singh, Ranjeet Samad, Vini Nair, Vatsal Mishra, Aditya Chaudhary, Jasween, Pradeep, Nilesh Vairagade, Manohar Raj, Tanya Dhir, Shaleen Kumar Sharma, Prashant Kalvapalle, Ashutosh Jha, Aaron D'Souza, Shakti Verma, Sanyukta, Pant, Ashwini, Firdaus Qureshi, Soham Joshi, Ankita Bosco, Arjun Kaluri, Rohit Sharma, Betty Rachel Mathew, Sushanta Tudu, Pardeep Kumar Punia, Dileep Kumar Yadav, Neha Khan, Omkar, Vandana Bhalla, Surendra Kumar, Sanjay Chacko, Abdullah, Aayush Garg, Mukarram Sultan, Abhishek Bhatia, Tajuddin Khan, Vishwas Deshpande, Mohammed Ashraf, Jayati Sood, Aditya Garg, Nitin Joshi, Partha Patashani, Anton Vinny, Sagar Rout, Vivek Chandak, Deep Chudasama, Khushboo Matwani, Virender Bagga, Keyur Gokhale, Shelly Singh, Goldwin Fonseca, Upasana Gupta, Leslie Isaac, Stephen, Anupam Kumar, Nishanth Perathara, Sudin, Bhavin Ved, Sriram Arthanari, Sanjit Mehta, Shashank Shekhar, Somsubhro Chaudhuri, Pallavi Das, Animesh Chaudhary, Dr Avishek Ghosh, Bharat Kumar, Renain Safi, Kanhu Kishore Nanda, Shubham Wankhede, Jagbir Lehl, Bharadwaj Upadyaya, Mohamed Suhair, Keith Rebelo, Saurabh, Aman Seth, Himanshu Singh, Malwika Chitale, Mohit Chelani, Abhishek Thakur, Utpal Kar, Abdul Aziz Abdul Gafoor, Aditya Kumar Tiwari, Chanchal K Mitra, Subhojit Bakshi, Jitendra Kumar, Subhransu Panda, Vaibhav V, Neerja Jain, Muzamil, Parminder Randhawa, Aishwarya Ghaisas, Siddharth Kulkarni, Fadil Sherrif, Jomy Mathew, Asim, Senthil Kumar Sakthivel, Abhimanyu Sinha, Srinivas Addepalli, Pratul Nema, Varun B Kothamachu, Aarushi Mittal, Sushil Gulati, George Isaac, Sameer Naik, Saurabh Naik, Ragesh Vyas, Vishal Sodani, Muhammad Shafeeque, Vivek Ashokan, Rachita Dutta, Sayani Dasgupta, Ashutosh Singh, Shrinjay, Siju Mathew, Paul Lazarus, Thufir Hawat, Kruttika Samant, Shireesh Vasupalli, Kanwarjit Singh, Deepak Keshri, Venkateshwar Rangala, Nagarjuna Reddy, Ashutosh Tripathi, Umesh Chander, Sandeep Kalyanasundaram, Abhishek Thakur, Pratyush Adhwaryu, Janhavi G, Siddhant Agarwal, Rajnish Thanekar, Amol Jadhav, Sunny Sureja, Jotinder Singh, Chinmay Sharma, Roderick Anthony, Krutik Arekar, Bharat Thakur, Gaurav Kolekar, SS Marmat, Umesh Pai, Anupam Patra, Vedant Chavan, Abhishek Sharma, Harsha Shettigar, Simranpreet Kaur, Sudarshan K M, Prerna Tyagi, Anshul Sahni, Fadil Sherrif, Yashvardhan Didwania, Ameya Apte, Inderpreet Singh, Goa Go, Abhishek Thakur, Khaleeq Sharif, Rajani Raman, Saurabh, Deepak Sharma, Sasi Inguva, Amyth Paddy, Aviral Tiwari, Nitesh Pandey, Mohideen Abdul Khadir, Abhishek Thakur, Jagrit Biswas, Pradeep M, Dr Prakhar Kumar, Rajitha Juvvala, Saumya Gupta, Pawan Singh, Dhir Pratap, Rahul Grover, Sowmya K, and other NL Sena members.
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