Four months since the economic blockade, a beleaguered Manipur gets ready for polls
Vikaas, Parivartan and demonetisation are the top issues for voters in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa and Uttarakhand this assembly elections, but for those in the state of Manipur-economic blockade is the first issue. The rest of India seems to have forgotten that Manipur is reeling under an indefinite economic blockade since the past four months. Though Manipur has long been accustomed to blockades and shortages, this has been the hardest. Pointless suffering and uncertainty over what’s going on has left voters in Manipur bereft of any enthusiasm for the polls – the state will go to polls in two phases on March 4 and 8.
The United Naga Council (UNC) blockade that began on November 1 against the Ibobi government’s decision to create seven new districts has left the state’s economy in doldrums. It took more than three months for the centre to show concern on the plight of civilians in Manipur. The Indian Air Force airlifted fuel tankers to Imphal in late January when the state was about to exhaust its storage. There has been random attacks by suspected NSCN-IM militants on oil tankers plying along the Imphal-Jiribam highway (NH 37) and the Imphal-Dimapur (NH 2) highway even under tight security cover. UNC followers are checking each and every vehicle along NH-37 to make sure no one is carrying any goods into the strife-torn state.
A kilo of potatoes in Manipur costs Rs 24 now, Rs 10 more than the average price – since goods-laden trucks started arriving in Imphal. Prices had shot up to Rs 50-60 per kilo following the blockade. The scarcity of fuel has led people to buy petrol from the black market for Rs 130-140 per litre. Bad enough, people are still lining up for fuel outside filling stations. A domestic LPG cylinder can be bought for Rs1500. Auto-rickshaw fares have gone up by 100 percent in Imphal – taking an auto will cost Rs20 up to 10km. Medicine stock-outs in pharmacies has also been a concern though essential drugs are available in pharmacies near government and private hospitals.
The Congress said the UNC has refused any discussion on the economic blockade with the state government. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has invited the UNC and the Manipur Government for a tripartite talk on February 3 in New Delhi, to which the UNC is yet to give its nod.
Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata party has put civilian comfort at the centre of their action plan, accusing Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh of being the ‘culprit’ behind the ongoing blockade. Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA) Convenor Himanta Biswa Sarma went a step further to dare the Chief Minister to step down from his chair for a day and let BJP handle the crisis. Sarma said his party has ‘the power to lift any blockade within an hour’s time’. But are not doing so – because the BJP leadership believes this issue could catapult them to win the polls. The party is confident of bringing an end to the 15-year Congress rule in Manipur by making voters feel betrayed by the Ibobi government. Union Minister Prakash Javadekar charged the state government of playing ‘divisive’ politics, of not using the paramilitary forces sent by the centre, and of choosing to create conflict eyeing the polls.
The Congress seems unperturbed by BJP’s amplifying attacks trying to bring about an opinion swing in voters. It has been a placid campaign by the party, so far. Chief Minister Ibobi called the United Naga Council a mouthpiece of the NSCN-IM. Even as opposition Naga People’s Front (NPF) and BJP are contesting polls separately, the Congress says they are working together with the NSCN-IM and UNC against the state.
Experts believe it will be a gripping election in Manipur this time with the Congress having to wrestle it out not just with the BJP, but also small parties including the new political party of anti-AFSPA activist Irom Sharmila – People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA). With a number of youths backing Sharmila, the party is ready to fight elections on the issues of corruption, unemployment and removing the ‘draconian’ Armed Forces Special Powers Act from Manipur. Some believe Irom’s candidacy could do well with support from activists and because of a strong grassroots movement – Sharmila has been on a door-to-door campaign trying to reconnect with her people, 16 years after breaking her fast, and will contest against Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh in Thoubal. A rookie who understands the system thoroughly, Sharmila said she wants to be the ‘leader of the society at large, not partially’.
While both BJP and Congress are going solo, six opposition parties will be seen in the race under the newly formed Left Democratic Front (LDF) alliance. The National Congress Party (NCP) which had won a seat in the 2012 elections has joined hands with the CPI, the CPI (M), the Aam Aadmi Party, the Janata Dal (United) and the Manipur National Democratic Front (MNDF). Being part of the pre-election alliance, the NCP plans to contest 20-25 constituencies. The Manipur People’s party will contest in 39 of 60 seats while Meghalaya’s National Peoples’ Party (NPP) founded by former speaker Late PA Sangma will make its electoral debut in Manipur and contest around 25 to 30 seats.
On the security front, Manipur Chief Electoral Officer Vivek Kumar Dewangan said two hundred and fifty companies of Central Armed Police Force will be deployed in Manipur for polls. Of the 250 companies, 44 have already been deputed for the economic blockade. Assam is also ready to meet the Election Commission requirement for its forces to be deployed in Manipur. Assam DGP Mukesh Sahay said 22 companies of paramilitary force and a good number of Assam police personnel have already left for Uttarakhand polls scheduled on February 15, and in due time more companies would be moved to Manipur.