CONGRESS SET FOR ENCORE

The dis­rup­tions of de­mon­eti­sa­tion and the eco­nomic block­ade will cost the BJP By Chi­tra Ahan­them

India Today - - COVER STORY GOA/MANIPUR - Fol­low the writer on Twitter @Chi­traAhan­them

With only eight weeks to go for the assem­bly polls in Ma­nipur, apart from a few face-offs be­tween the Congress and the BJP, there is lit­tle hap­pen­ing on the ground in terms of grand po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. A much talked about anti-in­cum­bency fac­tor af­fect­ing the prospects of the Congress and a pos­si­ble ‘BJP wave’ prompted by the party’s per­for­mance in neigh­bour­ing As­sam and de­vel­op­ments in Arunachal Pradesh did prompt some state Congress stal­warts to change course but re­cent de­vel­op­ments have tilted the bal­ance back in favour of the party.

The first act started on Novem­ber 1 when the pow­er­ful United Naga Coun­cil (UNC) called for a shut­down in all Naga-dom­i­nated ar­eas and im­posed an eco­nomic block­ade on the state’s high­ways, fol­low­ing the an­nounce­ment by Chief Min­is­ter O. Ibobi that Jiribam and Sadar Hills would be ac­corded district sta­tus.

To peo­ple un­fa­mil­iar with the land­scape of Ma­nipur, the state is land­locked and all es­sen­tial com­modi­ties are brought in by trucks via the state’s high­ways, a ma­jor­ity of which pass through Naga-dom­i­nated ar­eas. So a block­ade of the high­ways means acute short­age of stocks of es­sen­tial com­modi­ties in the state. Be­fore the na­tion saw the spec­ta­cle of queues at ATMs and banks after the de­mon­eti­sa­tion an­nounce­ment, the peo­ple of Ma­nipur were keep­ing night vig­ils at petrol pumps even as schools shut down be­cause their ve­hi­cles were run­ning dry. And after the de­mon­eti­sa­tion ef­fect came into play, rates for petrol went up to Rs 250 a litre while LPG cylin­ders touched Rs 2,000 on the black mar­ket.

A month after Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi an­nounced de­mon­eti­sa­tion, CM Ibobi con­ducted his own sur­gi­cal strike by an­nounc­ing seven new dis­tricts, ef­fec­tively play­ing to the gallery of peo­ple liv­ing in far-flung ar­eas who have for long been in­con­ve­nienced due to the dis­tance from the district head­quar­ters. Pre­dictably, the UNC termed the move di­vi­sive (cut­ting into its ‘Greater Nagaland’ cause) but with main­stream civil so­ci­ety laud­ing the an­nounce­ment, it meant ad­van­tage Ibobi and dis­ad­van­tage BJP (the lat­ter is widely seen as giv­ing too much lee­way to the UNC, which on its part kept in­sist­ing on talks with the Cen­tre and not the state lead­er­ship).

State BJP spokesper­son R.K. Shivchan­dra is quick to point out that high­ways are a state sub­ject and have noth­ing to do with the Cen­tral lead­er­ship. “The Cen­tre has sent in para­mil­i­tary forces who are giv­ing se­cu­rity cover to truck con­voys now bring­ing in some sup­plies to the state,” he says. “Why is there an eco­nomic block­ade ev­ery time assem­bly polls are round the cor­ner? It is state-man­aged, to gar­ner more votes.”

On the ground, how­ever, there is a grow­ing pub­lic per­cep­tion that the BJP cen­tral lead­er­ship re­mains blind to the im­pact of the de­mon­eti­sa­tion and the eco­nomic block­ade. There is a ‘too lit­tle, too late’ tag at­tached to the BJP, which has its own headache of deal­ing with too many lit­tle-known con­tenders vy­ing for tick­ets. The cur­rent talks on a frame­work agree­ment with the NSCN (IM)—which is yet to be placed in the pub­lic do­main— makes the BJP vul­ner­a­ble to ques­tions about pro­tect­ing the in­ter­ests of the non-Naga elec­torate. The de­fec­tion of BJP MLA Kh. Joyk­is­han to the Congress in De­cem­ber 2016 does not bode well for the party, given that he was seen as an up­com­ing leader and even a po­ten­tial CM can­di­date if the party came to power.

Al­most ir­re­spec­tive of the sit­u­a­tion on the ground, elec­tions in Ma­nipur pivot on pub­lic per­cep­tions of can­di­dates and less on party pref­er­ences. Given this sce­nario, the in­fight­ing within the BJP and the lack of any strong op­po­si­tion might pave the way for a fourth term for the Congress.

*Congress seat strength be­came 50 after Ma­nipur State Congress Party merged with it and the lone NCP MLA L. Ibom­cha also joined the party. The two BJP MLAs won in by-elec­tions, but one of them later joined the Congress

R.K. BULLURAJ CM IBOBI AT A FUNC­TION IN KHANGABOK

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