Assembly elections are scheduled to be held on March 4 and 8 in Manipur. The State has now turned into a virtual battleground of the Meiteis and Kukis on the one hand and the Nagas on the other. It has also become a battlefield for the ruling Congress and the Opposition BJP which has thrown the gauntlet to Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh. As the Congress prospects do not seem encouraging, many Congressmen, in true Congress tradition, are deserting what they think is a sinking ship and joining the BJP.
There is another factor too which is working against the Congress. The United Naga Council (UNC) which started an economic blockade in Manipur from November 1 last year to protest against the State Government's decision to create seven new districts have threatened many would-be Congress candidates to leave the party. The threat has worked to some extent.
The BJP is on the horns of a dilemma. To sympathise with the Nagas means antagonising the Manipuris or Meiteis of the Imphal Valley who far outnumber the tribals inhabiting the hills. To support the Meiteis means antagonising the Nagas and losing their vote. The BJP wants votes from both the sides. This is a difficult job as both parties are at daggers drawn. Also, being the ruling party at the Centre, the BJP cannot openly support the economic blockade by the Nagas which has brought the State on the verge of a collapse.
The situation is so desperate that the Centre has airlifted 35 tonnes of petroleum products to Manipur and is going to send seventy more tonnes by the aerial route. Besides, 20,000 para-military forces are being dispatched to maintain law and order at least until after the elections. As they arrive, Manipur will look like an embattled State. The Nagas and the security forces are likely to battle it out, but few ordinary voters in the Naga areas may venture to step out of their homes to cast their votes for fear of being caught in the cross-fire between the two.
Twenty thousand paramilitary forces in addition to the State Police and the Assam Rifles in a State which has a population of just 25 lakhs, underlines the gravity of the situation. The population is divided between the Imphal Valley (2,238 sq.kms) and the hills (20,089 sq. km.) But roughly two-thirds of the population live in the Valley, and only one-third (consisting mainly of different tribes) lives in the hills.
The BJP's quandary in the present situation is obvious. When Chief Minister Ibobi met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh in the early days of the blockade (that is, at the beginning of November), he told Rajnath that the UNC was the 'mouthpiece' of the NSCN-IM with which the Centre had concluded a Framework Agreement on August 3, 2015, and with which it was still continuing a dialogue. Therefore, Ibobi said, Rajnath should intercede with the NSCN-IM and persuade it to lift the economic blockade.
At a recent press conference, Ibobi said that Rajnath told him he would get the blockade lifted "the very next day" if the State Government gave him the assurance that the Sadar Hills and Jiribam (two of the seven new districts created) would not be declared full-fledged districts. To this, Ibobi told Rajnath that the creation of new districts is an internal matter of the State and that "No authority can dictate the State Government on such matters." If Ibobi's account is accurate, then it is clear that the BJP wants to assuage the feelings of the Nagas, but Ibobi has dug in his heels and would not yield an inch on the creation of new districts.
The BJP cannot afford to antagonise the Nagas. Abandoning the cause of the Nagas of Manipur will have its immediate impact in bordering Nagaland where the BJP has been running a coalition government with the Naga People's Front (NPF) since 2003 as a junior partner. Straining of relations with the Nagas of Manipur will endanger the government in Nagaland where the BJP has been able to increase its strength by organising defections. Three NCP legislators defected to the BJP in June 2014, leaving a lone party MLA in the House. In November that year, all eight Congress MLAs defected to the NPF, the senior partner of the coalition.
Just as the BJP cannot terminate its relationship with Mehbooba Mufti's PDP, howsoever it may dislike the PDP and its policies, it cannot quit the coalition with the NPF in Nagaland either. It cannot afford to lose the toehold it has acquired in this north-eastern State. So, tightrope walking and doing political acrobatics like befriending the Meiteis of Manipur without alienating the Manipuri Nagas is all that the BJP can do at the moment. Then there is another imponderable. How have the north-eastern States fared post-demonetisation? Very badly, indeed.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)