Violence back in Manipur polls: BJP wary of infightingtext_fields
Imphal: Elections in Manipur or any other northeastern states are strongly linked to security and issues related to deployment of the army and their use and abuse.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi landed in Imphal on Feb 21, Monday, and spoke about alleged RSS intent.
"When BJP and RSS come to Manipur, they come not with respect, not with understanding. They come with a sense of superiority. When I come here, I don't come with a sense of superiority, I come with humility," Rahul Gandhi said.
Gandhi paid floral tributes at Nupi Lal Memorial, Imphal. The complex was set up as a mark of tribute to Manipuri freedom who fought against the British during colonial era.
Manipur has been on the web of insurgency for years and hence the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) is in debate and is supposed to be an election issue in media and political circles.
The BJP thus had planned it well to field Defence Minister Rajnath Singh as one of the star campaigners for the party.
However, during his visit on Feb 14, Rajnath chose to stay clear of the major issue of repeal of the AFSPA. The BJP manifesto also skipped the issue and even when asked why so, BJP national president J P Nadda also avoided any direct answer. Otherwise, the regional parties Naga People's Front (NPF) and the NPP of Meghalaya CM Conrad Sangma and also the Congress have pledged to work to repeal the AFSPA.
The draconian law which gives unbridled powers to army personnel for search and killing of suspects was enforced in 1958 to fight insurgency. The law has stayed on since then, and the insurgency too.
Defence Minister Rajnath now says the militant organizations in the state should come forward for talks with the government to ensure peace and tranquillity.
In the context of elections, one does not miss the point that the tiny state is going for two phase polls. With hardly 20 lakh voters and 60 assembly seats, Manipur will have two phases of polls on Feb 28 and March 5.
Officials explain that security issues and deployment of paramilitary forces is one reason for two phase polls.
In contrast, Punjab, Uttarakhand, and Goa had only one phase of polling.
In 2021 when a multiphase polling schedule was announced for West Bengal over the issue of possible violence and law and order situation, there was resistance from the state's ruling party Trinamool Congress.
But in Manipur, nobody complained about that. "Security issues are always important and therefore two phases of polling is justified," said a local civil administration official in the Tamenglong region.
But, it is also important to note that violence is an integral part of elections in Manipur.
In neighbouring Nagaland most elections would create a tense atmosphere, but the violence per se does not take place on the polling day or few days before polls except skirmishes and some sporadic incidents.
Violence is 'back' in Manipur polls with a father of a NPP candidate Lourembam Sanjoy Singh,
contesting from Andro constituency, shot at on Friday, Feb 18. Unknown gunmen shot at the 74-year-old Lourembam Samjai, who received a bullet injury on his right shoulder.
Earlier, Congress workers were attacked on February 14 at the Saikul assembly constituency.
The Congress party's candidate Lemkim Haokip was hoisting her election flag at her residence when her supporters were attacked.
Gunshots were fired at the polling office of a candidate, S. Gurung, in Kangpokpi district. One person was injured. In Samurou in the second week of January, two persons including a close aide of the Manipur Agriculture Minister were shot dead by unknown gunmen.
Congress leader in charge in Manipur and former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh blames the BJP for the violence. "...Confident of its defeat, the BJP is indulging in pre-poll violence in Manipur," Ramesh had tweeted on Feb 16.
But the inherent contradictions in making AFSPA an election issue is not lost on the electorate. A businessman from Rajasthan in Imphal says, "On one side, they say the army should go; AFSPA should be abrogated. On the other hand, most parties want central forces and CRPF to be stationed everywhere in their house and party offices and on the streets to avoid violence".
He also pointed out that both in 2012 and 2017 assembly elections too, there were serious violent incidents and killing of people. "...the evolving scenario (pre-poll violence) could turn into a security nightmare if adequate precautions are not taken up on time in Manipur," says a local journalist.
The 'Imphal Free Press' pointed out in an edit that the district administrations have already called for "depositing of licensed guns in view of the elections. Yet, only about a quarter of the licensed guns were deposited in the police stations till date, while many are running around for exemptions".
The BJP leaders also say AFSPA debate so far has avoided mentioning instances when Manipur police commandos were involved in gross violation of human rights.
"A narrative was built up against the army. But the fact of the matter is in Manipur and Nagaland, you need army deployment; and you cannot have army deployment without AFSPA," said a key saffron party leader in the state.
The BJP leaders say during their days in power, Congress chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh had told on the floor of the Assembly that a militant named Sanjit was eliminated in an 'encounter'. Manipur police cop Herojot, who was part of a 9-member commando force which is supposed to have eliminated Chunkham Sanjit, later said the killing took place at the directives of superiors.
There were other instances too.
Among polls-related violence, in 2012 bombs suspected to have been planted by militants were seized and defused before the start of polling in Khurai Chingangbam area, Sawombung High School, Khomidok in Imphal East district on the polling day itself. The poll-related violence had claimed seven lives, including that of a militat.
Five years back, in 2017, at least 22 cars, buses and other vehicles were torched in some places in Manipur's Imphal East district by angry residents protesting "against the Naga economic blockade". Even curfew was imposed in some areas.
The situation had deteriorated so much that the then Manipur Chief Minister (Ibobi of Congress in 2017) had urged the Centre in writing to snap all agreements with the NSCN(IM) and revoke the ceasefire at least in Manipur.
Other issues being debated is how the Naga voters decide their right to would exercise the franchise. Nagaland CM Neiphiu Rio (of NDPP) campaigned in Senapati district on Feb 16 and stressed a lot on the need for an early signing of a peace pact between Naga militants and the Centre. NPF has fielded tencandidates mostly in hilly regions. Interestingly, some observers say even in hilly regions, the NPP could pick up two-three seats.
This will essentially mean marginalisation of the Congress and the BJP. One Mao-based analyst says, "the Congress is missing the fire in the belly. This gives a huge advantage to the NPP as all resentment against the BJP could end up favouring the NPP candidates both in the hills and in the plain areas".
In BJP, now there is a realisation that perhaps antagonizing both its allies NPP and NPF was slightly on the erroneous side.
It dumped the allies and drew out plans to contest all 60 seats on its own.
This ambitious expansion plan actually is seen as a brainchild of chief minister N Biren Singh. The ticket distribution and dissension among rank and file has only added to the challenges for the Lotus party.
Now, insiders suggest if the saffron party does not do too well—as expected by the anti-Biren Singh camp—the saffron party will have the option open to go for a new chief ministerial face.
After what the BJP high command did to Sarbananda Sonowal in Assam and Amit Shah's 'more trusted lieutenant' Himanta Biswa Sarma was made the chief minister; everyone is keeping fingers on the fate of Biren Singh too.
Biren's possible challengers include Thongam Biswajit Singh and Govindas Konthoujam. The latter Govindas had been a Congress state president and once pitted himself against veteran Okram Ibobi Singh. He joined the Lotus outfit in August 2021. Thongam Biswajit Singh is a key BJP leader.
As Minister of Public Works, Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Biswajit has worked closely with some key central ministers in the Modi cabinet and a few of them could do lobbying and spade works for him.
Meanwhile, signboard parties in Manipur like Janata Dal (United), LJP of Paswan family, NCP of Sharad Pawar, the newly floated Kuki People's Alliance and Trinamool Congress are keeping fingers crossed and waiting in the wings to make it big once a fractured mandate throws up a hung assembly.
Even the Shiv Sena has fielded nine candidates, including one former deputy speaker TT Haokip from Henglep segment.Sena general secretary Anil Desai did the honour.
The 16-page manifesto pledges safeguarding 'Manipur's territorial integrity' and repealing AFSPA.
Five years back, with modest four seats, NPP of Meghalaya Chief Minister Sangma had bargained hard for deputy Chief Minister's post and ministership for all four. Nothing suits a hung assembly or parliament than these smaller parties.
The Congress is waiting anxiously for a favourable outcome. It's revival journey depends a lot on Manipur's performance. Lately, the high command has started showing some seriousness in its northeast plans and started trying out new formulae to revive party prospects in Tripura and Meghalaya.
"...You are an inspiration for me, for the Congress party and for the entire country," Rahul Gandhi told Manipur people and party workers in a video message recently.
Importantly, from northeastern politics, two Christian majority Nagaland and Meghalaya and BJP-ruled Tripura go to the polls by February 2023.