The BJP Manipur chief discusses the core issues the party is raising in the elections, why the party hasn’t declared a chief ministerial candidate for the state and more.
Imphal, Manipur: With less than a month left for the two-phased assembly polls in Manipur, electioneering in the economic blockade-hit state is gradually picking up steam. For the first time, the well-entrenched Okram Ibobi Singh-led Congress will face a stiff electoral challenge from its arch rival at the national level – the Bharatiya Janata Party – in the assembly elections that are set for March 4 and March 8.
The BJP had succeeded in building an early momentum against the 15-year-old Congress government in the state, particularly in the Meitei-dominated valley areas – a crucial advantage since 40 of the 60 assembly constituencies are in the valley districts. However, the economic blockade called by the powerful Naga civil society, the United Naga Council (UNC), against the state government’s decision to carve out seven new districts, and the resultant blocking of the northeastern state’s two arterial highways – NH-2 and NH-37 – by UNC supporters since November 1 have largely turned the tide in favour of the Congress government.
The framework agreement between the BJP government and the NSCN-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) which has been kept ‘secret’ since August 2015 has caused concerns among the majority Meitei community about the central government’s intentions with regard to the NSCN’s demand for greater Nagaland, which includes parts of the Manipur state.
Though the Centre has held two rounds of tripartite talks with the UNC and the state government to remove the stalemate, many in the valley areas suffering from the acute shortage of essential commodities and the sudden rise in the price of goods that come from the mainland through the blocked national highways blame the Narendra Modi government for not doing enough.
The suffering of the people was further aggravated by the Centre’s decision to demonetise high currency notes at about the same time in November.
In an interview with The Wire, the BJP state president Kshetrimayum Bhabananda Singh said, “Yes, the ongoing blockade and demonetisation did break the momentum of the party; it did affect us, but that time has passed. People are now forgetting about those hardships and are beginning to see again the reasons why the Ibobi government should go. The anti-incumbency is still very high.”
Excerpts from the interview follow. The interview has been edited for clarity.
What are the core issues the BJP is raising in these elections?
There are too many issues. There has been 15 years of misrule. We have brought out a 20-page chargesheet against the state government in which we have named 100 failures of the government under various heads, like corruption, scams in recruitment, fake encounters, law and order, in governance, in education and employment, and in infrastructure.
There are 1,528 uninvestigated cases of alleged fake encounters in Manipur that the Supreme Court has taken cognisance of. In 73 of the 323 government schools in Manipur, not a single student passed the class ten exams. Manipur is a water-rich state but only 15% of households get drinking water in their houses; there is widespread drug abuse in the state. The divide between the hill and the valley areas has widened in the last 15 years and as many as 171 centrally-funded projects are behind schedule by more than eight years.
The Ibobi government awarded Rs 224 crore to a company for cleaning of phumdis (floating islands) from the Loktak Lake. The company existed only on paper and over Rs 400 crore of public money was looted.
There are many such issues for which this government needs to give an answer to the people of the state.
What does your party promise to the people of Manipur?
We have promised a corruption-free, clean government in the state, something that people of the state deserve. We want to remove the culture of bandh and blockade from the state. The bandhs and blockades cause a loss of Rs 30 crore a day to the people of Manipur. However, instead of solving the issues, the chief minister says bandh and blockades are normal in Manipur, nothing to worry.
But the ongoing economic blockade called by the UNC seems to have affected the prospects of your party, particularly in the crucial valley areas. Your party’s government at the Centre is being accused of going soft on the UNC.
It is Ibobi Singh who has put the blame on us, not the people of the state. The central government tried very hard to lift the blockade through talks but the UNC has not spelt out what exactly they want.
On February 10, the Centre said that there might not be any more talks with UNC on the blockade. (On February 7, the home ministry said the next date of tripartite talks between the Centre, the state government and the UNC on the issue of creating seven new districts by the Ibobi Singh government was slated for March 25.) The main concern of the people in the valley has been about the border of the state but the central government has time and again said the boundary of Manipur will not be compromised. Our party president Amit Shah ji and Prime Minister Narendra Modi-ji have assured the people about it many times. They have said, have faith in us.
Anyway, it was the Congress which started the talks with the Nagas; our party has only tried to bring the talks to a logical conclusion. Now Ibobi Singh is trying to put us in the corner on the Naga Accord because the framework agreement is still not out in the open. The Congress has trapped us on it; it has created a problem for us. Still, this issue can’t save the Congress government. The anti-incumbency is still very strong against the party.
While it is clear to the voters that Congress has a chief ministerial candidate, but it is not the case with the BJP. There seem to be also quite a few contenders to the post in your party. Don’t you think it should declare a name to send out a clear message to the voters?
Well, the central party leaders will be able to give you a better answer on that. But I can very clearly tell you that I am not in the race. You are right, we have many leaders; there is no dearth of leaders in our party. We have some good young leaders too. The party is known for grooming young leaders, both at the state and central levels.
So, as of now, it will be decided by the party after the elections. Also, in none of the poll-bound states has the BJP declared any chief ministerial candidates.
But Manipur is different from other states going to the polls. BJP declared that it would make the Northeast Congress-mukt for which it formed the North East Development Alliance. Manipur is one of the last Congress strongholds in the region. The party declared a chief ministerial candidate in Assam which certainly helped it, so why not here too?
Well, I agree that it did help the party in Assam. But the situation may be different in Manipur. I will tell you what I said before; the central leaders will be able to give you a better answer on it.
So, you don’t have a particular face of the party in these elections?
People here usually don’t care much for central leaders of any party but they know Narendra Modi ji. He is our face in these elections. People think he is serious about solving many problems of the Northeast.
We have a long list of star campaigners for the party in the coming days including national and regional leaders. We are hoping that in the last week of electioneering, Modi-ji will also visit Manipur. We have requested for two rallies to be addressed by him, one in Imphal and one in Churachandpur. It will have a dramatic effect among the voters.
The party’s national president Amit Shah-ji will also address rallies in the state in the coming days besides national general secretary Ram Madhav and NEDA convener Himanta Biswa Sarma.
There has been considerable unrest in the hill districts of Manipur for over a year now, most parts of which may not go with the Congress in these elections. While that has created a conducive atmosphere for the BJP to make a political entry in these areas for the first time, will the party be able to deliver a solution and bring peace to those areas?
Right now we have more support in the hill areas than in the valley. People there have been fed up of Congress. There is no governance in these areas. The roads are in a terrible state, there are no basic facilities. We promise to give the people of these areas what they have not got so far. So it should be able to solve their problems.
While BJP has an alliance with the Naga People’s Front in Nagaland, it is contesting the NPF in some of the hill districts. Same with NDA partner Nationalist People’s Party. Why didn’t it go for an alliance with these parties in Manipur?
Yes, the alliance with NPF didn’t happen in Manipur. It wanted to go alone. But we can always have post-poll alliance with these like-minded parties. With the support of like-minded parties, we hope to form the next government in the state.