Commentators see the outcome of the recent Assembly elections in Manipur as an interesting twist and topple story. The party in power fell just short of the required number of seats, despite getting the highest number of seats in the Assembly. But the ruling political party at the centre, which emerged from nowhere, managed to obtain not only a significant vote share but also emerge as the second largest party in the state. And it followed this up with a deft game of forging alliances to gain a majority and staking claim to form the government.
While this may be a routine fallout of elections in any other part of the country, what has happened in Manipur could well have the potential of strongly influencing the situation not only within the State but also in the entire Northeast region. It was generally perceived by the tribal peoples within Manipur that the previous State government, which was not amenable to their demands, aspirations and genuine concerns, was mainly surviving on popularity gained from the large vote-base of non-tribals in the State. But this perception has been disproved by the outcome of the Assembly elections. The new state government, seen as an extension of a “development centric” ruling party at the centre, could be seen as a beaming ray of hope amidst the existent volatility and discontent in the State as well as in the region.
Apparently, the Manipur aspect of the ongoing Naga peace talks had a limited range of options for negotiation since no political consensus could be obtained between New Delhi and Imphal on various proposed arrangements. Further, the long pending demand for upgrading the Hill Area Autonomous District Councils from the charter of the Fifth to the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution had consistently been turned down by previous governments in the State. However, the new government may now look at the whole issue differently, more so, after the inclusion of NPF (Naga Peoples Front) members in the State cabinet. The new government’s favourable disposition towards the demand for greater autonomy in the Hill districts, therefore, seems well within reach, albeit at the cost of annoying the ‘hardliner’ Meiteis. Such a decision, however, may not be without its associated problems. The demand for enhanced autonomy in the Naga districts of Manipur is seen by a large cross-section of non-Nagas as a step towards accommodating the demand for ‘Greater Nagalim’, which could eventually lead to tampering with the existing territorial boundaries of the state. This may fuel dissent amongst the Meiteis as well as the Kukis, and could well provide impetus to the simmering discontent among those living in the ‘Valley’ areas to take up the issue of reforming the Manipur Land Reform regulations, which are seen to be discriminatory since the Hill tribes have the provision of owning landed property in the Valley whereas the Valley people do not have similar rights in Hill areas. The consequent resentment amongst the Meiteis could re-energise the Inner Line Permit (ILP) movement and their demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status.
The creation of new districts in the State, which was announced by the previous government just prior to the conduct of assembly elections despite strong opposition from Naga socio-political organisations, resulted in an indefinite economic blockade (now called off) within the State. The new government could possibly make an attempt to pacify the prevailing discontent, especially amongst the Nagas. However, any move towards revoking the order that created the new districts could trigger trouble, and may not find support especially from non-Naga alliance partners within the government. But, there remains the likelihood of continued pressure from Naga alliance partners on the new government for withdrawing the said notification. The move of creating the new districts seems highly paradoxical. On the one hand, it is likely to facilitate better governance in remote areas and benefit a great many people. But, on the other hand, it is seen as a deliberate design to undermine Naga aspirations for territorial integrity.
The attempts to promulgate three controversial (‘anti-tribal’) Bills by the previous State government were also not received well by the tribal population in Manipur. This had resulted in large-scale dissent amongst the tribals, and was also viewed by a certain cross-section of ‘non-tribals’ as a “deliberate” political game. Any further move in support of these contested Bills could cause resentment especially among the alliance partners representing the tribal areas, whereas the opposition parties may welcome the step.
The alliance partners in the new government belong to the Naga Peoples’ Front (NPF), National Peoples’ Party (NPP), All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and an Independent Candidate. They all have divergent ideologies from that of the ruling BJP. It would be an uphill task for the new government to sustain a stable configuration for long, as dissent by even a single partner has the potential to bring down the government. Strong and decisive governance under such circumstances, with so many complicated issues at hand could turn out to be extremely challenging for the new leadership. It would, therefore, be prudent for the new government to re-instil confidence among all parties through a total focus on equitable development in both the Hills and the Valley areas and take all stakeholders on board before undertaking any controversial move.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.