Notwithstanding the pat on the back from Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a public gathering in Imphal, the Biren Singh-led BJP government in Manipur is not in a position to bask in the praise.
The turnaround story Modi narrated on Tuesday (January 4), setting the tone for the BJP’s campaign for the ensuing assembly elections, has numerous holes.
The prime minister’s claim that the BJP government has bridged the divide between the Meitei dominated valley and the tribal dominated hills with the state government’s “Go-to-Hills” outreach programme has a very few takers, particularly in the tribal areas.
The Biren Singh government’s failure to table the current assembly Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council (ADC) Bill, 2021 due to pressure from the valley-based civil organisations has not been taken kindly by the tribal organisations.
The bill was drafted by the Hill Areas Committee (HAC) comprising all the 20 legislators from the 10 hill districts and sent to the state government in August last year for enactment. It sought to give more power to the HAC and the existing six ADCs in matters related to the development of the hill areas.
In November last year, several influential tribal organisations, including the All Tribal Students Union Manipur, (ATSUM), enforced an economic blockade for a few days, cutting the supply of essential commodities to the valley through the National Highway passing through the hills. The blockade was withdrawn after the government assured to introduce the bill in the winter session of the assembly.
Modi’s claim that the BJP government has succeeded in ending the blockade culture in the state will fall flat if the bill is not enacted soon to end the alleged development disparity between the hills and the valley.
“The outreach programmes like the ‘Go to Hills’ are just empty slogans. The development divide is still there. This could have been addressed by giving more power to the HAC and ADCs as proposed in the shelved bill and also more representation to the hills in the assembly through delimitation exercise. Unfortunately, the ADC bill and the delimitation exercise have been put into the backburner,” said Xavier Mao, a political commentator, who teaches at the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU).
Of Manipur’s 60 assembly seats, 40 are in the valley and 20 in the hills. In the state’s total population, as per 2011 census, the share of the hills is 43 per cent. Naturally, the hills were anticipating a fair representation through delimitation exercise.
In the coming elections due in a few months, the hill-valley rift could come back to haunt the ruling dispensation. In the 2017 elections, of the hills 19 ST reserved seats (out of 20), Congress got nine seats, while the BJP and the Naga People’s Front (NPF) pocketed four each. The National People’s Party (NPP) bagged the remaining two seats.
The NPP and the NPF later joined the BJP-led coalition government.
“Definitely, the ADC is going to be the major poll plank in the hills. Our agitation over the issue has been kept in abeyance only because of the advent of festive season and now elections. But the issue is very much alive,” said ATSUM general secretary SR Andria.
The prime minister in his speech also lauded the state government for “improved” law-and-order situation, indicating that it would be another campaign issue for the ruling BJP. But the plank could backfire as the insurgent groups are still very active in the state.
Barely 24 hours after Modi claimed that the law and order had improved in the state due to the continuous efforts of the double-engine governments (one in the state and another at the Centre), a powerful bomb explosion killed an Assam Rifles jawan and injured another in Thoubal district on Wednesday.
In November last year, a commanding officer of the paramilitary force, Colonel Viplav Tripati, his wife and son and four soldiers were killed in a deadly ambush in the state’s Churachandpur district.
A recent annual report of the home ministry said that although the overall militancy-related incidents in the Northeast have come down, the situation in Manipur and Nagaland is still a cause of concern.
Apart from militancy, Manipur is also witnessing a spurt in narco-terrorism at the international border that it shares with Myanmar. Last month, 54 kg brown sugar and 154 kg Methamphetamine (ice meth), estimated to be worth over ₹500 crore were seized in the state by the Assam Rifles.
In various development indices of the Niti Aayog too Manipur did not show much progress during the BJP regime. In the ‘Healthy States, Progressive India’ report — compiled by the Niti Aayog, Union health ministry and the World Bank for the fourth edition between 2019-2020—released last year, Manipur scored only 34.26 points in the smaller states category. Only Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland scored fewer points.
The unemployment rate in Manipur at 9.5 per cent, as per a labour ministry’s data tabled in the parliament last year, is also among the highest in the Northeast. Only Nagaland has a higher unemployment rate in the region.
On top of it, the ruling coalition is besieged with internal strife. The BJP’s relation with its coalition partner NPF has recently strained after the saffron party had poached 12 key members of its ally.
Another coalition partner, the NPP has this time decided to go solo. NPP leader and deputy chief minister Y Joykumar said his party has set a target of becoming the single largest party by winning a minimum of 20 seats.
The party is planning to contest 40 to 45 seats and is also keeping its post-poll alliance option open. This clearly shows that the differences between the NPP and the BJP that surfaced in 2020 are still there. The rift has further deepened after the BJP recently roped in NPP MLA and Manipur Sports Minister Letpao Haokip.
In 2020, the Biren Singh government had to face a trust vote following withdrawal of support by the NPP. The government had then survived the hiccup due to the intervention of Union Home Minister Amit Shah and the BJP’s crisis manager in Northeast Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.
The knives are again out for Biren Singh.
Amidst all the odds, Biren Singh can draw some comfort from the fact that the state’s main opposition party, the Congress is now in complete disarray and is busy fighting fire in its own house.
“The BJP no doubt has failed to deliver on its tall promises. But the Congress is unlikely to take advantage of the situation as the party is not yet in a position to inspire confidence with many of its leaders jumping the ship,” said Peter Adani, a senior journalist of Manipur.
Veteran Congress legislator D Korungthang joined the NPF on Wednesday (January 5). Earlier in November, two disgruntled Congress MLAs RK Imo Singh and Yamthong Haokip went to the BJP fold, barely two months after former Pradesh Congress president Govindas Konthoujam donned the saffron colour.
The Congress sources said that the problem for the party is that its tallest leader in the state and former chief minister – 73-year-old Ibobi Singh – has become its weakness. Because of his old age and poor health, he of late has not been very active politically. But for the grand-old party, he still remains the best bet.
That’s the Congress’s irony.