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Manipur elections 2017: It's all about economic blockade, Nagalim and Project Northeast

It doesn’t take long to understand that the assembly election in Manipur is being fought solely on the issue of territorial integrity of the state. Instead of development as a basic talking point, politics in Manipur is revolving around the Naga Accord which the Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed in 2015. Though basic issues like corruption, lack of development, extra judicial killings, ecological issues and AFSPA remain alive, it is the three-month long blockade organised by the Naga community in Manipur that continues to remain the biggest issue. Senior BJP leaders are quick to blame the Manipur's chief minister of 15 years, Ibobi Singh, for the creation of seven districts before the assembly elections which has led to intense violence.

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Manipur elections 2017: It's all about economic blockade, Nagalim and Project Northeast
Narendra Modi in Manipur
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It doesn’t take long to understand that the assembly election in Manipur is being fought solely on the issue of territorial integrity of the state. Instead of development as a basic talking point, politics in Manipur is revolving around the Naga Accord which the Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed in 2015. Though basic issues like corruption, lack of development, extra judicial killings, ecological issues and AFSPA remain alive, it is the three-month long blockade organised by the Naga community in Manipur that continues to remain the biggest issue. Senior BJP leaders are quick to blame the Manipur's chief minister of 15 years, Ibobi Singh, for the creation of seven districts before the assembly elections which has led to intense violence.

“The message went out that the decision was political in nature. He had earlier claimed that he would carve the districts till consensus evolves and then he took the decision suo motto,” said Kiren Rejiju, Minister of State for Home Affairs. Though Congress defended the decision as a routine administrative matter but the message which went out was that the state government undermined the concept of Nagalim (Greater Nagaland), leading to unrest in Naga dominated Manipuri areas.

The result of the decision was a massive blockade which threw life out of gear in Manipur. The Manipur CM blamed Centre for inadequate support and BJP blamed the Congress for fishing in troubled waters. “The decision to carve out the district was an administrative matter but the Centre must show us the Naga draft. It is the silence on this issue which has created so much anxiety in the state,” said senior Congress leader Imran ul Kidwai in Imphal.

The accord which was signed in 2015 has not been thrown open to public scrutiny out of security issues till now. It is this opaqueness which troubles an average Manipuri though BJP claims that not an iota of land would be ceded and territorial compromise is a political jumla. “There is no mention of Manipur in the accord. I can vouch for it. There is no compromise on territory,” says BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav who is the party's in-charge for the North East. Such is the seriousness of the issue that even the Prime Minister Narendra Modi had to publicly assert that territorial integrity of Manipur would not be tempered with.

Ibobi Singh continues a low profile campaign around territorial integrity while BJP has gone in the opposite direction. BJP’s campaign is loud and high decibel, with senior leaders campaigning in Imphal. BJP also doesn’t have a chief ministerial face. It feels content in projecting the Prime Minister as its face. It has also taken up the sensitive issue of extra judicial killings with the promise that political actors who authored such decisions would be brought to book. “We have made blockade an issue because it is being used politically by the Congress,” says Jitendra Singh, Minister of State in Prime Minister’s office.  BJP wants to build this narrative of blockades and lack of development without getting into the Naga issue directly. Congress differs. Imran Kidwai says that Manipur has seen an all-round development and it for there for everyone to see.

However, what is surprising is that Iron Sharmila, who fought the Centre on AFSPA and became a famous public figure from Manipur, has not been able to capitalise her long and solo campaign politically. Her campaign continues quietly outside of Imphal in a very modest way. The draconian law continues to be in force in the hilly terrain of the state though it is not in the valley anymore. Comments on certain issues, like the health of the Loktak Lake which is India’s biggest freshwater lake, have become a metaphor for other problems in the state. “More money we sent to clean the river, the dirtier it became,” says Jitendra Singh.

Manipur has become significant in public discourse because of the importance which RSS lays on the frontier regions of the country. It is because of this that both Kashmir and the North-east region are being personally handled by Ram Madhav, who was inducted into the BJP from the RSS before the Lok Sabha elections in 2014. The Kashmir and Assam victories gave legitimacy to BJP as a national party. Like the Karnataka victory in 2008 did for BJP in south India, a victory in Manipur would consolidate its footprint in the North East for long time to come. “North East push is the priority for us and we will take this fight to every state,” says Himanto Sharma, Finance Minister of Assam, who played the most crucial role in bringing BJP into power in Assam. If BJP wins then it would open doors to all other states currently dominated by the Congress or Left. If it doesn’t, it would have to wait a little longer to gain acceptability in the multi-ethnic North East.

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