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Manipur Assembly polls

The battle for Imphal


POLL-BOUND : The city of Imphal. The government of CM Ibobi Singh (far left) has ruled Manipur for the past 10 years

As Manipur goes to polls on January 28, it is worth recalling a little-known fact: that the trouble-torn northeastern state bordering Myanmar was the first state in the country to hold universal adult franchise. That election was held in June 1948 under constitutional monarchy, when Manipur was still not a part of India. It came before the first Lok Sabha polls, which were held between 1951 and 1952. The state merged with the Indian union on October 15, 1949 - a historical event that is still being debated, particularly among the majority Meitei community, and is the root cause of insurgency in the Imphal valley.

The merger was preceded by a long history. Manipur lost its 'sovereignty' after it was defeated in 1891 in the Anglo-Manipur War, becoming a princely state under British rule. During World War II, the state was the scene of many fierce battles between the Japanese army and the Allied forces. The Allied forces defeated the advancing Japanese in the Battle of Imphal, considered one of the turning points of the war. Netaji's Indian National Army (INA) first hoisted the national tricolour on Indian soil at Moirang on April 14, 1944.

When the state merged with India in 1949, the Congress was the only political party to back the move. Today, it is the party that has ruled the state for the maximum number of years. The Okram Ibobi Singh government, including the Congress and CPI, has ruled the state for the past 10 years, and is eyeing a third consecutive victory in elections to the 60-member Manipur assembly.
But a third term for the Congress may not be easy. Seven major rebel outfits of the state have jointly issued a diktat banning all forms of campaign by the party saying the Ibobi Singh government was anti-people and working against 'revolutionary forces' - a clear reference to the 'fake' encounters by Manipur police commandos.

The Congress has hit back saying the move is against the interests of the people. "We think the authorities will take steps to ensure peaceful elections, " says state Congress president Gaikhangam. The party is also banking on the fact that it has brought political stability to the state. "Despite the strict enforcement of the ban and attacks on Congress candidates, the results will finally decide whether the party is still accepted by the electorate or not. We are the only party which has brought stability in the state, " says Congress MLA Khumujam Ratankumar.

But others are not convinced. Bimol Akoijam, associate professor of sociology in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, believes that while Manipur has experienced political stability for the last 10 years, this period has seen a big failure in governance. "Ethnic tension, highway blockades, human rights abuses and corruption are problems that remained unaddressed, " he says. "While Ibobi Singh brought in stability, he also brought an authoritarian regime, and he never improved governance. And while we were the first to have universal adult franchise, we haven't seen substantive democracy in the state. "

Three major issues have played out in the run-up to the elections, but the winnability of candidates will also depend on the usual concerns like village roads and water supply. Safeguarding the state's boundaries, the highway blockade and removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) are issues each party will try to exploit.

"Today, the threat to Manipur's territorial integrity is an immediate concern and this will be our main plank, " says CPI state secretary M Nara Singh, whose party is a partner in the ruling Secular Progressive Front (SPF) alliance. The problem has taken a serious turn with the United Naga Council demanding an alternative administrative arrangement for the Naga-dominated areas.
While the repeal of AFSPA remains a sensitive issue, it is yet to become a plank that can clinch an election. The resistance to the law is symbolised by the iconic Irom Sharmila, who is on a fast for last 11 years. But it is possible AFSPA was and will be limited to an election issue only to be forgotten after the polls.

There are also sensitive ethnic issues. The Sadar Hills issue led to a blockade lasting 120 days last year. Kuki tribals first launched the blockade demanding creation of a Sadar Hills district by carving out Kuki-dominated areas from the Naga-majority Senapati district. The Nagas opposed the Kuki demand and then launched a counter-blockade. The worst sufferers, of course, were the common people of Imphal valley and the hill districts.

The Congress' failure to tackle the blockade is now being exploited by the opposition alliance People's Democratic Front (PDF) comprised of the Manipur People's Party (MPP), JD(U), NCP, RJD and CPM. But the opposition is seen as too weak to take on the Congress except for the advantage of the ban on the ruling party by militants. The Trinamool Congress, meanwhile, is emerging as a dark horse in this election.

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