There is an understandable tendency among analysts to generalise the results of the recent elections in five states as a forecast for a sweep of the 2024 Parliamentary election by the Bhartiya Janata Party. While this assumption appear natural, there are reasons for the winners not to be complacent and those who lost to not despair, for each of the five elections were fought and won on different issues and by different strategies. At least this is stark in the case of Manipur where the BJP emerged with a clear but thin majority of 32 in a house of 60.
The average number of voters in each of Manipur’s 60 constituencies is about 35,000 and the average winning margin generally 3,000 to 6,000 votes depending on whether the contest is a straight fight or multi-cornered. This time however, 22 of the victories had margins less than 1,000 votes and 12 of these were of BJP candidates.
Furthermore, nine victories were by margins less than 500 votes and of these, eight were of BJP. In one constituency, Wabagai, Kakching district, the BJP candidate beat his Congress rival by just 50 votes. In Lamlai Constituency, Imphal East, BJP nipped Janata Dal (United) by 121 votes and in Lamsang, Imphal West, BJP trailed National People’s Party all the way but surged ahead when postal ballots were counted to win by 400 votes. But this is first past the post system, where a victory by one vote is as good as by several thousands. However, what is clear is, there is nothing in this result to say the winners this time have eliminated all serious future electoral challenges.
BJP probably would have done better if not for the exodus of many of its leaders and their workers ahead of the elections when Congress defectors were preferred over them for party tickets. It remains to be seen if the party is able to reconcile with the rebels and reconsolidate its base before 2024.
If BJP suffered and paid for its consciously acquired excess weight this election, the decimation of Congress which could manage only five seats, also provides valuable insights into the Manipur electorate’s mind. The Congress once held sway in the state, having had an unbroken three terms reign before being ousted in 2017.
To take one case, there was a time Congress had no serious challengers in the 12 seats considered the stronghold of Naga tribes in Manipur’s 20 seats in the hills. Some of the most prominent politicians of the state have been Nagas, among them, two chief ministers. This time however, no Congress returned from any of these 12 seats.
The Nagas disenchantment with Congress began in May 2010. After decades of hiatus the then Congress government decided to revive the state’s six Autonomous District Councils in the hills, a local self-governance mechanism in lieu of the Panchayat system in the valley. Naga civil bodies opposed this and instead wanted an “alternative arrangement”, an administrative unit autonomous of Manipur state, and embarked on blockading the state along its lifelines.
Amidst this agitation, Thuingaleng Muivah, the leader of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), wanted to visit his village Somdal in Ukhrul district on May 3 and also hold two public rallies – at Ukhrul town on May 8 and at Senapati town on May 10.
The then Union home minister, P. Chidambaram had sent a telegram to the then chief minister Okram Ibobi, asking him to make security arrangements for Muivah’s visit and public rallies to which the latter put his foot down and blocked Muivah’s entry into the state. Protest against this decision resulted in the two deaths on May 6 at Mao gate. In the 2012 Assembly election, the Congress’ share of the 12 Naga seats dropped to five. In 2017, this was reduced to four. This time, the Congress lost all 12.
Ethnic friction in the hills between Nagas and Kukis also added fuel to fire. A demand by Kukis for bifurcation of Sadar Hills as a separate district from the Naga dominated Senapati district led to another flashpoint. Crippling blockades along NH-2 accompanied the demand, and finally, in December 2016 barely three months ahead of the February 2017 election, the Congress government conceded to the demand. In the same move, the government also bifurcated six more administrative districts to create more districts.
The move was welcomed by non-Naga districts, but vehemently opposed by Naga civil bodies, saying this was designed to encroach on Naga’s ancestral homeland, a reference to the demand for a unified Naga homeland of territories Nagas consider theirs.
Highlighting Manipur’s complex ethnic matrix, just as the blockade by Kukis ended when the district they wanted was created, another by the Nagas began objecting to the same decision.
Congress drew nil this time in the southern districts too where Kukis and aligned tribes dominate, but this has more to do with Kuki underground militants openly pledging support for BJP ahead of the election.
Congress lost out miserably in the valley as well bagging only five out of the valley’s 40. One of the reasons is the party’s radical counterinsurgency strategy of eliminating militant suspects adopted during its 15-year reign. The result was 1528 recorded cases of alleged fake encounter killings. This left deep wounds amongst the public. BJP capitalised on this hurt in its aggressive election campaign.
The irony is, a state is expected to fight military challenges to it. But the peculiar thing about insurgency is, they are rooted in the societies they spawn from. Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth calls them the “mailed fists” of aggrieved societies. Hence, no matter how disliked insurgents become, when government campaigns go too far, the hurt begins to be felt by the people, for those killed would be a son, a daughter, a neighbour etc. Any meaningful resolution to any insurgency hence cannot be seen through a law-and-order lens alone for it is also a socio-political challenge.
Another conclusion is obvious. BJP’s victory in Manipur had little to do with any deepening of the Hindutva ideology.
This story was first carried in The New Indian Express and the original can be read here
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author