CONGRESS SET FOR ENCORE
The disruptions of demonetisation and the economic blockade will cost the BJP By Chitra Ahanthem
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