On March 8, the second and final round of polling was held in Manipur, bringing to a close the two-phase Assembly elections in the state. Out of the 60 seats in the tiny hill state, 20 are reserved for Scheduled Tribes and one for Scheduled Caste candidates.
The state, which shares an international border with Myanmar and state borders with Nagaland, Mizoram and Assam, is home to over 28 lakh people.
With 41.5 percent Hindus, a nearly equal percentage of Christians and close to 9 percent Muslims, Manipur has one of the most diverse religious compositions in the country.
This, along with a mix of other complex factors, will influence the outcome of the elections in the state.
1) Economic Blockade
The Congress government on 9 December 2016 created 7 new districts by bifurcating 7 of the 9 existing districts of Manipur. According to CM Okram Ibobi Singh, this was done for more efficient administration,
However, the Naga tribe-supported United Naga Council (UNC) saw it as an ‘encroachment’ on their ancestral land and an attempt to weaken their political significance before the upcoming assembly elections, since 5 of the 7 districts were in the hill region, dominated by members of the Naga tribe.
The UNC, opposing the government’s decision, imposed an economic blockade in Manipur by closing down NH 2 & 37 that connect the capital, Imphal, with the rest of the country and provides the densely populated city with essential supplies.
The blockade which continues to be in place till today has adversely impacted the day-to-day lives of the people, shooting the prices of food, medicines, fuel and other necessities.
In repeated incidents of violence between the Naga and the Meitei tribe, some casualties have also been reported.
The UNC leaders met the Home Minister Rajnath Singh and requested that President's Rule be imposed. The Central government held tri-tripartite talks from which the Congress backed out, refusing to bow down to the pressure-tactics exerted by the UNC. This reinforced the image of the CM as a decisive leader and can help him gather support from the non-Naga tribes and other communities of the state.
And with the blockade continuing, it is sure to cast its shadow on the polls.
2) The Veteran vs the Iron Lady in Thoubal
The Iron lady of Manipur, Irom Sharmila, is taking on the incumbent three-term Congress CM Okram Ibobi Singh in his stronghold Thoubal. Irom’s newly formed political party, the People's Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA), is fighting on three seats with the main agenda of repealing AFSPA in the state. Though too naive for politics, Sharmila enjoys a clean image in the state mainly because of her struggle against the draconian military law imposed in the state since 1958.
Okram Ibobi Singh comes from the dominant Hindu tribe, the Meitei, and enjoys significant support from the community. Out of the 22 seats that voted on October 8, 10 were in the Thoubal region. Sixteen of the 22 seats are held by the Congress.
3) BJP Counting on Support from Kukis
In 2012, the BJP had contested the Manipur elections but drew a blank. The party is optimistic this time around, especially after its thumping victory in neighbouring Assam (86 out of 126 seats) and Arunachal Pradesh (47 out of 60). With most of the leaders of the Kuki tribe switching over from the Congress to the BJP, the saffron party is expecting support from the community.
4) Rivalry between Kukis and Nagas
The age-old rivalry between the tribes dominant in the hills, the Nagas and the Kukis, has claimed numerous lives over the past three decades. While the Kukis have traditionally voted for the Congress, the Naga community-based political party NPF (the Nagaland People’s Front) is in an alliance with the BJP at the centre.
This alliance could have made BJP the community’s natural choice in the elections. However, the NPF, which holds 4 out of 60 seats in the state, is contesting alone this time, fighting in 16 seats.
5) The Inner Line Permit Issue
The majority Meitei community of Manipur had been demanding the promulgation of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) in the state for long. The ILP system, already in place in neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland, prevents "outsiders" from buying land or settling in the designated protected regions.
The Kuki and Naga tribes, however, see the ILP system as a threat to their very existence. Hence, they were at loggerheads with the government after it passed three Bills in 2015 giving more rights to the majority Meitei community. The idea behind passing the Bills was to do with away the perception that outsiders – especially those from Myanmar and Bangladesh – are snatching away jobs and land in the state.
Violent protests erupted in the state against the state government during the second half of 2015. The subsequent government crackdown on the protesters resulted in the killing of 9 people in the Kuki-dominated Churachandpur district.
The continuing resentment against Okram Ibobi’s government is bound to leave an impact politically.
6) The Muslim Factor
Known in the state as 'Pangal' or 'Meitei Pangal', Muslims holds sway in at least 12 seats, mainly in the Congress bastion, Thoubal district. The community has traditionally voted either for the Congress or the largely Muslim-based Manipur People's Party (MPP). The MPP was formed in 1968 as a breakaway faction of the Congress.
The party has given Manipur its first-ever Muslim Chief Minister – Mohammad Alimuddin (1972-73 and '74). But with the MPP fielding just three candidates, the Congress is looking to win over Muslim voters once again.
On the other hand, the BJP has given just one ticket to a Muslim candidate, Mohammad Anwar Hussain, who is contesting from the Lilong constituency. The seat has the largest Muslim population in the state.
Irom Sharmila’s PRJA has fielded the state’s lone Muslim woman candidate, Najima Bibi, who is contesting from the Muslim-dominated Wabgai constituency.
While the results will be declared on 11 March, one thing that’s a given is that Manipur is not going to be a cakewalk either for the old war horse of the state, the Congress, or the resurgent BJP.
(The author is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist who covers politics, the economy and international affairs. He can be reached @haider_talat. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)