The unfolding crack between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other regional parties, including the Naga People’s Front (NPF), which is backed by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim-Isak and Muivah (NSCN-IM), an outfit fighting for a separate Naga homeland carrying forward a century-old issue and the United Naga Council (UNC), an apex pressure group or frontal organization of the NSCN-IM involved in advocating for the creation of Nagalim, has been coming since March 2017 as a consequence of the forceful formation of the BJP-led coalition government then.
Ironically, the coalition govt was formed after 15 years of relatively stable Congress govt, with the majority community comprising nearly 2/3rd of the Assembly, that came into power riding on the June 18 (in 2001) mass uprising of the valley folks (predominantly the majority community) against a BJP move to grant Nagalim by carving territorial parts of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
The coalition was the first BJP-led govt on the soil of Manipur which was formed even without having majority under the present chief minister-ship of N. Biren Singh. The NPF party which did not include protection of Manipur’s territorial integrity in its manifesto became a strange bedfellow of the coalition of ideologically opposite parties. What are the local factors causing this crack? Is there an effect of the political scenario prevalent in India?
The NPF/UNC angle
At least two senior leaders, the Manipur state unit chief of the NPF, Awangbow Newmai, and former Nagaland chief minister T. R. Zeliang, announced a few days before the general election results were announced to withdraw NPF’s support from the BJP-led govt of Manipur. The move was owing to the learned helplessness of the NPF and the UNC on not seeing the prospect of the BJP forming a majority govt in the Centre after May 23, 2019.
In a clear case of introspection illusion and following of the peak-end rule, the NPF joined hands with the BJP, the party in power in the Centre enjoying absolute majority, in forming a coalition govt back in 2017 claiming it to be an ‘unconditional support’ because of the spectre of resolving the century-old Naga homeland issue. The UNC-called economic blockade, a troublesome legacy of the previous govt, ended in a few days after govt formation. Soon, the NPF bagged a cabinet position in the govt.
So far, the NPF has been trying to pressurize the Centre to bring a settlement of the Naga homeland issue. Trouble started brewing after the clamour for the revelation of the clauses in the Framework Agreement (FA) 2015 signed between the Centre and the NSCN (IM) became shriller resulting in a mass rally organized by the United Committee Manipur (UCM), a valley-based civil society organization (CSO) and a conglomerate of many organizations, on October 31, 2018 and participated by many CSOs, and as many as 15 political parties, including the BJP. Notably and understandably, the UNC was conspicuous by its absence.
The CAB 2016 and its aftermath
A few months prior to the general election 2019, the BJP govt at the Centre committed a political blunder by passing the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) 2016 in the Lok Sabha igniting a fierce opposition from the northeastern region of India.
Among the many organizations and political parties that opposed the bill, the UNC and the NPF also figured prominently. As an outcome, the CAB could not be passed in the Rajya Sabha. For the time being, the CAB is being put on the back burner.
While the CAB heat was still scorching, the BJP started its campaign for the general election 2019 invoking the National Register of Citizens (NRC) by none other than party chief Amit Shah. This and other ‘non-compatible’ steps and politics of the BJP which are akin to barking up the wrong tree forced the NPF rethink on their continuation in the BJP-led coalition govt in Manipur. Even though its pull-out may not make the coalition govt a minority, the NPF has now realized that the BJP and their party cannot be on the same side of the fence.
On its part, the NPF has always wanted to show its relevance by becoming an assertive partner of any government in the state whether it is of the BJP or the Congress. The NPF is essentially protoplasmic in nature and it changes shape like water. As a consequence, the bickering crisis arose between the party and the BJP. This notwithstanding, adding more trouble to the recuperating CM of Manipur after a bone-related surgery, some other coalition partners, such as the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), the influential member of the coalition govt, of which the BJP is a partner in Nagaland, has strongly asserted that the stand of the NPF indicate the desultory leadership of present chief minister of Manipur.
Interestingly and all of a sudden, the issue of withdrawing support by the NPF and NPP MLAs from the present chief minister led coalition govt has been a ‘silent’ one since the declaration of the 17th Lok Sabha result marking the landslide victory of the BJP. However, the reasons for going silent, just because of an assurance by Ram Madhav who looks after the party in the northeast, are yet to be revealed.
The present Chief Minister’s predicament
Jumping into the electoral fray in 2002 under the aegis of Democratic Revolutionary People’s Party and subsequently becoming a Congressman for 13 years, of which the initial eight-nine years saw his meteoric rise, both in the party hierarchy and govt, which got curtailed inter alia by his son’s involvement in a road rage case bagging for himself a five-year jail term, the present chief minister got sidelined by the then CM triggering his joining of the BJP in 2016 by giving up his Assembly seat.
A career and political turncoat, and an ideological opportunist, he inherited a legacy that was nothing less than a ticking time bomb when he was sworn-in as the chief minister of Manipur on March 15, 2017 with the help of horse-trading, the so-called aaya Ram gaya Ram (defector) MLAs of the Congress, and the BJP’s might and political maneuvering like the way it happened in Goa, Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh, and now, visible in the en masse switching of side in West Bengal, and Karnataka.
Among the pending and volatile issues, the first one was: The O. Ibobi Singh govt, out of the blue, created seven new districts in Manipur in 2016 that prompted many people from the hills to come out on the street and ensued an economic blockade spearheaded by the UNC for nearly four and a half months during which high voltage politics adding to the hills-plains people tension played out on both sides. Apart from this, the other issues were 1) a looming crisis over the ‘hoodwinking’ FA signed secretly without taking into account the stakeholders, and 2) the Inner Line Permit System (ILPS) bill which became a bone of contention between the peoples of the hills and plains on the access to land resource in the hills.
The accumulated political disadvantages that he had to inherit made him walk a political tightrope. More so for a first-ever BJP-led govt in Manipur where the party, after sending four MLAs to the Assembly in 2002, was reduced to just 0.85% and 2.12% vote share in 2007 and 2012, respectively, meaning Manipuris have never liked the subversive politics of the party until its vote share dramatically shot up to 36% in 2017. According to media reports, within the BJP, there are a dozen MLAs forming a Th. Bishwajit Singh camp, a cabinet minister in the coalition govt and a powerful leader, and currently outside the State to chart a plan to survive in the event of the BJP not forming govt in the Centre.
Around 14 MLAs formed the Bishwajit’s camp in New Delhi. Even if the present chief minister wants us to believe that all is well in the govt except for a few internal misunderstandings, undeniably, there is a strong leadership crisis in the BJP-led coalition govt in Manipur.
The crisis is still unfolding and is not likely to end anytime soon as some of the leaders seem to claim that they are being appalled by the political scenario of the state and the misuse of present chief minister’s position by his second wife-led junta (group) as a de facto power centre in a way similar to the Nur Jahan-led junta during the Mughal Empire. As a consequence, there appears to be a strong demand for replacement of leadership.
In the meantime, stripping off of ministership from Deputy CM Y. Joykumar and Th. Bishwajit Singh of Finance and Power alleging them of corruption caused overdraft though the actual reasons are anybody’s guess. Is the dissent within because of the ‘non-Manipuri’ issues that the BJP as a party is pursuing and has campaigned for in the general election 2019?
Saffronising ‘majority community’ nationalism?
It is believed that the longest politically stable period Manipur has ever experienced was from 2002 to 2017 which was Mr O. Ibobi Singh’s hat-trick also as chief minister. Manipur got statehood in 1972 and since then till 2002, no CM had completed a five-year term except Rishang Keishing (1981-1988). The fact that O. Ibobi Singh got the support of majority community as a result of the June 18, 2001 uprising that made him stay in power for 15 years.
Although the Nagas kept on imposing economic blockade on national highway 39 ahead of every Assembly election since 2006, surprisingly, the elections (2007, 2012 and 2017) that followed the blockades propelled Mr Singh to victory except in 2017 because of a radical administrative reform he introduced by declaring the formation of seven new districts cutting through the interests of the Nagas and other hill people.
In sum, the majority community turned to ethnocentrism and sub-nationalism in the late 1970s after their armed struggle for secession lost currency, and as a culmination, the hill-valley gap widened while the community’s votes got consolidated to grab 60-68% of the seats in the Assembly indicating a majoritarian shift.
The BJP at the centre in 2001 flared up communal tension between hill and valley peoples through the Bangkok declaration of June 14 to extend the ceasefire with the NSCN (I-M) covering Manipur’s territorial limits. The ‘great June uprising’ (June 18, 2001) as it is known today was seemingly a handiwork of the BJP.
The declaration had such a damaging effect on BJP’s electoral fortune that its six MLAs in 2000 came down to four, zero and zero in 2002, 2007 and 2012, respectively. However, in an unprecedented reversal of fortune, the BJP garnered 21 seats in 2017 even though the party was criticized badly for not revealing the contents of the FA 2015, and the public became more worried about territorial integrity of Manipur (except for NPF, all other parties including protection of Manipur’s territorial integrity in their 2017 election manifestoes).
Many MLAs from the Congress and other parties including All India Trinamool Congress crossed over to the BJP after it formed the coalition govt. A few days back a prominent CSO leader with an elbow-long list of activities relating to majority community nationalism to his credit jumped on the BJP bandwagon.
Is it a case of saffronising majority community nationalism or electoral fortune-hunting? Since both the concepts are unhealthily competitive in nature, the BJP members are bound to fight to prove oneself more worthy. The present chief minister went on record to parrot the RSS narrative of linking Manipur to Lord Krishna at Madhavpur fair in Gujarat last year. As such, the rocking boat is not expected to float for much time, and the leadership crisis is here to stay.
(Md. Chingiz Khan is a Ph.D Scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and Mohammad Imtiyaj Khan is an Assistant Professor at Gauhati University, Guwahati, Assam)