Manipur: Odds stacked against Opposition while BJP looks for brownie points
The fact that the now nearly-three-month-long violence in Manipur has come to shake up the country only months before the next general elections is indicative of its deeply political nature. The kind of divide created by this is stacked more against the Opposition than the ruling BJP, though the indignation it has caused goes against the latter.
This applies to the state or local level as well as for the rest of the country, or at least through large parts.
The sharp divide is unlikely to remain within the confines of Manipur or the North-East. The reason is that most of the large and more electorally significant Hindi belt is already susceptible to such conflicts, which are similarly rooted in ethnic or religious affiliations and draw clout from these. Thus, the message sent out by Manipur to the rest of India is inadvertently going to affect the electoral equations for the warring sides at both levels — societal and political.
A shocking video of an armed crowd parading two naked women in Manipur went viral soon after the meetings of two main rival political alliances — INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) and NDA (National Democratic Alliance) — were held in Bengaluru and Delhi, respectively. This raises doubts about the intent behind the video’s release. This is more so since the appalling incident had taken place over two months ago – on May 4.
Question of timing
BJP spokesman and former Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad was quick to point out that it was released on the eve of the first day of the Monsoon Session of Parliament with obvious motives. But more than Parliament, the reinforcing of the two main political sides around the same time in the form of alliances with an eye on the next general elections is what makes the viral video really crucial.
The BJP-led NDA is an old formation while INDIA was formed only on July 18 by 26 opposition parties with much fanfare. But soon, the obnoxious video turned the public’s attention to Manipur before INDIA as a new alliance could gain currency. This was felt by some of the supporters of the alliance and they demanded that the parties in INDIA send a joint delegation to Manipur. Those who raised the demand say that it was being actively considered by some of the INDIA leaders though the alliance is still in formative stages.
So, the video came too soon to give any time to the new alliance to settle down under its new garb before taking on the BJP. From the Opposition’s point of view, the grimy video turned out to have a disruptive sort of effect since INDIA leaders still need to meet in Mumbai to put the structure of the new alliance in place.
But in between INDIA’s journey from Bengaluru to Mumbai, Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke his silence on July 20 over Manipur. Although he expressed his pain and anguish over Manipur’s ghastly reel, he also tried to put the ball in the Opposition’s court by mentioning incidents of ‘violations to women’s modesty’ in Congress-ruled Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Soon, several BJP leaders added West Bengal and Bihar to the list of Opposition-ruled states where, according to them, the sanctity of women’s body and honour had been violated.
This has led to a slugfest where Opposition-ruled States say that the Prime Minister and the BJP are comparing oranges to apples. The tussle has robbed Parliament of any significant business through the first days of the Monsoon Session; there are no signs of an early resolution to the deepening stalemate.
Instead, the battle over Manipur between the ruling party and the Opposition has all the potential to escalate further, both inside and outside Parliament. The reason is that the BJP higher-ups have not only tempered their belated remorse over Manipur with atrocities against women in states run by rival parties, but also claimed that the ethnic strife in the North-East is not new.
It has been on the rise in the region since the earlier Congress rule, according to them. As for the viral video that surfaced, Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh has remarked that there have been hundreds of such incidents.
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is also convenor of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), shared similar views through a series of seven tweets. One of them read: “Since 2014, there has been tremendous healing of Manipur’s social fabric. This process of resolving decades old ethnic conflicts will be completed in totality under the leadership of Prime Minister Shri @narendramodi ji.”
Contrary to this view, it is common knowledge that strife between Meitei and Kuki inhabitants of Manipur, simmering for long, continued even after 2014. It erupted into violence in May this year following a High Court order in March asking the state to initiate the process to include Meiteis in the list of Scheduled Tribes. The High Court order became public in April and the government had either hardly anticipated the kind of emotional response this could evoke among people or looked the other way.
The critics of the state government say that following the High Court order, Biren Singh’s administration ignored its likely response among the people because Meiteis outnumber Kukuis. What is meant is that this did suit him and the BJP from the electoral point of view. Actually, Meiteis generally identify themselves as Hindus, while a sizable Kuki population in Manipur follows Christianity.
It is akin to what the BJP had fallen back upon during last year’s Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls, when Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath openly flaunted the “80:20 ratio” among voters to whip up majority Hindu support for his party.
Like the shocking Manipur video, in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri, another video clip of a Union minister’s son’s convoy of vehicles ramming through protesting farmers had gone viral months before the Assembly polls. The incident and the outrage caused by it led to calls for the sacking of the Minister. But the government remained unmoved and Ajay Mishra continues to be Union Minister of State for Home. The courts are yet to decide the fate of his son Ashish Mishra.
Resignations not happening
So, if the demand for the resignation of Biren Singh is to be looked at in this light, there is little chance of its being acceded to. More recently, the demand for the resignation of Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw after the Balasore train tragedy was also met with stoic silence on the part of the government.
Unlike in the past, resignations in such cases have become impossibly rare as the government sees a loss of face in this. What the powers-that-be are mostly focused on is electoral gain and loss even in the event of tragic occurrences like Lakhimpur Kheri or Balasore.
The case with Manipur violence is not very different. The BJP government, which is often blamed for looking for gains in elections through polarisation of the electorate, appears to be at it again. If it is so, it is bad for Manipur and no early or easy end to the crisis can be expected. But from the point of view of the Opposition and civil society, who look deeply perturbed, it is no less challenging to find a way out through the vexed situation Manipur is currently grappling with.
More so, since it looks to be swinging towards what the trend has of late been through most of the Hindi belt.
Today, if the continuing legal row over Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi and the government’s move vis-a-vis the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) are to be looked at in terms of their likely impact on the voter’s mind, Manipur may only add to the polarising mill. The mill, after all, has been merrily rolling on through the past decade or so — and even before that.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi-NCR. He tweets at @abidshahjourno.)
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