GUWAHATI: The exit polls have predicted an edge for BJP in the Congress-ruled Manipur, but chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh is confident that his party will retain power.
“I am optimistic about a clear mandate in favour of Congress. This is a kind of a referendum. We are confident that we will win between 40 and 42 seats. Wait till tomorrow (Saturday) and you will know,” he told New Indian Express a day ahead of the declaration of results.
The Congress, which has been in power in the State since 2002 under Ibobi, faced the toughest battle this election. It was a resurgent BJP that had made its task difficult. The Congress was virtually sitting pretty until last year when the BJP managed to divide the House of the ruling party by engineering defection. That the goings for the Congress will not be easy this election was evident when half a dozen party biggies switched their loyalty to the BJP. The Congress was further weakened by the defection of some other stalwarts to non-BJP parties.
Emboldened by its Assam feat, the BJP pledged to purge the North-east of the Congress. As part of that mission, the party first set its sights on Manipur despite the fact that the Sangh does not have any influence over people here. The hills that surround the Imphal valley have a large Christian population while valley has Hindus in majority. That the BJP was serious about its prospects here was evident when Ram Madhav rushed to Imphal on the day Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal took oath.
The BJP faced in Manipur what it had faced in Assam in 2016. The Congress in Assam was in power for 15 years but weakened by infighting in the last term. The party has been in power in Manipur too for 15 years. Although there was no revolt against Ibobi per se, there was discontentment among a section of party stalwarts. The BJP had managed to poach some of them. Until then, the Congress was complacent.
It has been a tradition in Manipur that the Congress reaped rich dividends every time the State was caught in a conflict between Nagas and Meiteis (Manipuris). The 40 of the State’s 60 seats in Meitei-majority Imphal Valley virtually decide the fate of a party and the Congress concentrated on these seats to whip up an anti-Naga sentiment. It was in light of this that the Ibobi government had decided to create seven districts much to the chagrin of the Nagas. The decision made the United Naga Council (UNC) enforce an economic blockade on two national highways, which only widened the ethnic divide.
To further polarise voters, the Congress raked up Centre’s Framework Agreement signed with the Isak Muivah faction of Naga insurgent group National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM). It demanded that the Centre makes public the Accord’s contents.
The Meiteis are worried about Manipur’s territorial integrity owing to the NSCN-IM’s contentious demand for the creation of ‘Greater Nagaland’ by slicing off the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur besides Assam and Arunachal.
Given the BJP’s presence in Nagaland’s ruling alliance, the Congress had also sought to give an impression to people in the Imphal Valley that the saffron party was tilted more towards Nagas. The BJP hardly had any issues in their manifesto except alleged corruption and under-development during Ibobi’s regime. It tried to woo voters by promising to expose corruption and build a progressive Manipur.
“The Congress wanted to gain mileage by making the polls an issue between the Nagas and the Meiteis. But people knew the kind of game the Congress and Ibobi were playing,” former Congress minister and BJP spokesperson N Biren told New Indian Express. He was confident that the BJP would get more than 30 seats.