Why Modi's Jibes May Not Be Enough For BJP to Win Manipur

Modi called Ibobi “Mr 10%” at an Imphal rally, but hurried through an issue that weighs heavily against the BJP – the “secret” framework agreement between the Centre and the NSCN (I-M).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rally in Imphal. Credit: Rajat Sethi/Twitter

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally in Imphal. Credit: Rajat Sethi/Twitter

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi – the face of the BJP in the March 4 and 8 assembly elections in Manipur – accused the state chief minister and Congress leader Okram Ibobi Singh of corruption at a rally held on the outskirts of Imphal on February 25.

Modi said, “The Manipur chief minister is known as Mr. 10% we need a chief minister who is 0%.”

He then continued in a similar vein against the 15-year-old Congress government while seeking ” five years” from Manipur’s voters for the BJP to bring about a change in the state, saying, “BJP is the only option.”

However, what the majority community – the Meiteis occupying the valley districts, who have the biggest say in the polls – most wanted to hear about from Modi was actually given the least attention in the prime minister’s speech: the framework agreement signed between his government and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) (NSCN I-M) on August 3, 2015, which has since been kept under wraps.

There too, he tried to turn the tables against the Congress by saying, “Not a single word in the Naga framework agreement is against the interest of Manipur. A person who looted for 15 years is now spreading lies. The Naga Accord was signed one and a half years ago. Was the Congress asleep that time? And now they are spreading lies.”

The prime minister might have quickly moved away from the topic but he and his party know that it is the most crucial issue for the state’s largest bloc of voters – who can sway the results in 40 of the state’s 60 assembly seats.

The proof of this lies in recent “reassuring” statements delivered by quite a few senior BJP leaders who have addressed the issue, besides the remarks made by senior home ministry official R.N. Ravi, eho handled the framework agreement with the NSCN (I-M) to arrive at a possible Naga peace accord.

Launching the BJP’s “vision document” for the state in Imphal on February 19, senior leader and union home minister, Rajnath Singh, said, “I want to reassure all of you here that the central government and the BJP will never compromise with the territorial integrity of Manipur. In the framework agreement, even the name of Manipur is not there.”

The BJP’s national secretary for the northeastern states, Ram Madhav, was the first to speak on this aspect. On February 5, in an interview to the popular Imphal-based news channel ISTV, and also while speaking to local reporters, Ram Madhav tried reaching out to an audience he wants to engage on this issue – the Meiteis. On February 27, he reiterated his point on “no compromise on Manipur’s territorial integrity” in another interview – to the news magazine  Outlook.

When asked why the framework agreement has been kept a secret from the public, he told Outlook , “See, it is (a) one page understanding. It’s a framework not a final agreement, based on [which] further negotiations will happen. How can we disclose anything? That doesn’t mean there is anything secret. This is sacrosanct: on territorial integrity there is no compromise. On the contrary, the BJP as a party will fully secure the interests of the Meiteis living in the valley. We will fully address their concerns about their language, culture, lands.”

A day after Rajnath Singh reiterated Ram Madhav’s point, R.N. Ravi – seen by the Meiteis as the man who “actually” formulated the details of the agreement – told ANI news agency that the framework agreement is “not the final agreement” and that “it is still [a] work in progress.”

Three days later, on February 23, union minister of state for home, Kiren Rijiju, joined the chorus, saying, “This is just a broad document under which we will work out details. It is not a final agreement.” He said, “Without the consultations of all the stakeholders, a final decision on the Naga issue will not be taken.”

The BJP’s flawed poll strategy

All these statements, coming as they have in quick succession, should therefore be considered a part of a carefully written script created by the BJP’s poll strategists. The party’s actions and rhetoric indicate that it has a sense of how vital the issue has become among the state’s majority community. The party seems to have realised only recently that the accord could become the party’s biggest impediment to electoral success in the coming polls.

For some time now, the BJP has been working on a poll strategy largely based on  anti-incumbency sentiment against the Ibobi Singh government. It was when it thought things had reached a tipping point, that the state government threw a googly. The BJP’s unpreparedness in dealing with the surprise quickly indicates that its poll strategists lacked a deep understanding of the ground realities that form the social and political fabric of the state. Worse still, the party underestimated Ibobi Singh.

Interestingly, Ibobi Singh’s strategy to outdo the BJP looks like he has borrowed tools from the same box that the BJP used for the assembly polls in Assam – ethnic assertion of the majority community.

While in Assam, the BJP poll strategists played on the “jati mati bheti” (ethnicity, land and base) planks to seek a “poriborton” (change) from the 15-year-old Congress government. In Manipur, they tried to play the “development” and “clean government” cards in the disturbed and backward state. Modi’s February 25 speech largely hinged on those points.

However, the Congress chose to play the BJP’s “jati mati bheti” plank in Manipur, knowing well that in the northeast, ethnic assertion and the majority communities’ insecurity would be a far better unifier than “development”. In fact, there were numerous examples to aid the state government’s decision – the inner line permit (ILP) movement, the demand for scheduled tribe status for the Meiteis, protests against the “secret” part of the framework agreement in the form of placards that said “R N Ravi go back” – when he visited Imphal a couple of times in 2015 and 2016 to consult civil society groups representing the Meitei and Kuki communities on the framework agreement, without giving out the “secret” part.

So, if the BJP played on the Assamese bias against “illegal Bangladeshis”  to wrest the state from the Congress, the Congress in Manipur has targeted the ire of the Meiteis – and also the Kukis – against the Nagas to reclaim power.

However, it is important to note a nuance in the Congress’s approach. Targeting the Meiteis and Kukis’ ire towards the Nagas was not aimed at the entire community, but mainly at the two communities hatred of the NSCN (I-M) and its supreme leader Th. Muivah –  a Thankgul Naga from Manipur. He is a highly unpopular figure among the Meiteis and  Kukis and they consider him the main propagator of the greater Nagalim demand – that talks of uniting the Naga areas of Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh into a single whole.

Ibobi Singh also simultaneously reworked the organisational part of the state Congress. Kuki leader T. N. Haokip was made the head of the Manipur Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC), replacing Gaikhangam Gangmei, a Naga, while he continued as the deputy chief minister. Gaikhangam, a Rongmei Naga, is also considered to be opposed to the NSCN (I-M) and the United Naga Council (UNC), an organisation seen as close to Muivah.

The change of guard at the MPCC also put to rest a rebellion brewing among the Congress MLAs, seen by some political observers in the state as “fuelled” by the BJP “to destabilise the state government before the elections.”

In August 2015, the state assembly also passed three bills with clever phrasing that weighed heavily in favour of the Meiteis and their land rights. The move might have triggered violence in Churachandpur, the largest hill district of the state, giving the BJP an opportunity to try and gain ground in that area but in turn, it helped the Congress gain further credence among the Meiteis – and gradually among the Kukis too. Thus, there too, the Congress poll strategists scored over those of the BJP.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing a BJP rally in Imphal. Credit: BJP/Twitter

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing a BJP rally in Imphal. Credit: BJP/Twitter

Present situation

Currently, the BJP has a greater sway in those areas than  the Congress, but the region comprises only 20 assembly seats. Also, the BJP would be contesting in these hill districts against its own allies – the Naga People’s Front (NPF) besides the National Peoples Party (NPP).

The Ibobi Singh government went a step ahead of the BJP in October last year when it made clear that it was going ahead with giving full-fledged district status to Jiribam and Sadar Hills – a sore point with the UNC. For decades, the UNC had successfully opposed such a move. This was a point it scored over the Kukis, seen as the traditional opponents of the Nagas. This time round, the Congress government fulfilled the Kukis’ long standing demand for district status.

Failing to stop the government, the UNC declared an indefinite economic blockade from November 1 onwards, which continues till date.

On December 9, the state cabinet executed the major component of the Congress’s poll strategy – the creation of not just two, but five new districts, by bifurcating many of the areas claimed by the NSCN (I-M) and the UNC as the ancestral lands of the Nagas.

The more the UNC dug its heels in to protest, the more people in Manipur suffered due to a lack of availability of essential goods in the state – particularly petrol, cooking gas and medicine. It clearly made the UNC the villain of the piece.

UNC leaders were taken into custody, sending out a strong message to the Meiteis and the Kukis that Ibobi Singh had the guts to take on the NSCN (I-M) and the UNC. They continue to be in jail.

Even as the Centre weighed the situation vis a vis the BJP’s prospects in the coming polls – and also the future of the ongoing Naga talks – it gave the crucial headway that the state government needed. The BJP poll strategists yet again failed to gauge the deep Manipuri sentiment that “the Centre doesn’t quite care about us.” The party’s most prominent face, Kh. Joykishan, left to join the Congress, dealing the BJP a huge blow.

Though just after the signing of the framework agreement in 2015,  home ministry officials reportedly clearly said the NSCN (I-M)’s most contentious demand – the creation of greater Nagalim – had been “set aside for now” and the accord would be “confined to Nagaland”, the Centre (read: BJP) just couldn’t take that message to the people with the forcefulness it needed to in the poll-bound state. What worked against it was the add-on line that “certain autonomy will be given” to the Nagas.

“It looked like the Centre fell into the trap of Muivah to hurriedly declare an ‘accord’ with the signature of Isak Chisi Swu, who was on his death bed, so that Muivah could later convince all the Nagas on the peace accord he would bring about. You have to remember that Muivah is seen as an outsider by many Nagas in Nagaland. Without that signature of Isak, he knew he would never be able to convince people in Nagaland about the Naga accord,” said Imphal-based senior journalist Laba Yambem.

Yambem certainly has a point there. Speaking at the condolence meeting following Isak’s death at  Nagaland House in New Delhi in June, Muivah admitted that it would be difficult to implement the peace deal without Isak and sought every Naga’s support for it.

Reasons behind the BJP’s actions

This aside, the reason behind the BJP poll strategists needing to preempt the Congress on the framework agreement was the role that the erstwhile A. B. Vajpayee government played when it opened talks with the NSCN (I-M).

Following a meeting in Bangkok between Indian emissary K. Padmanabhaiah and Muivah and Isak, the Centre, on July 14, 2001, signed an agreement to go ahead with the talks “without territorial limit” and renewed its ceasefire with the separatist outfit by extending it to the Naga-inhabited areas even outside Nagaland. This triggered widespread violent protests in Manipur as the Meiteis felt it was the first step towards accepting the greater Nagalim demand of Muivah. It pushed the then BJP government to withdraw those three contentious words related to “territory” from the agreement on June 27, 2001.

In 2003, when Muivah and Isak again met  Vajpayee government officials, doubts against the BJP firmed up among the Meiteis, as well as the Kukis. Chief minister Ibobi Singh, accompanied by opposition leaders of the state, landed up in the national capital seeking an assurance from the centre that Manipur’s territorial integrity wouldn’t be affected by the talks.

“This time round, when the Modi government said it ‘signed’ a framework agreement with NSCN (I-M) without taking the Manipur government into confidence, the same fissures that existed with the Vajpayee government got reignited in the state,” pointed out a well-known Meitei student leader who didn’t want to be named. He said, “Days after, the state cabinet took a resolution supported by MLAs from across the parties to protect the territorial integrity of the state.”

Speaking to ISTV on February 5, Ram Madhav did try to turn the tables on the Congress by saying that the party supported the Naga insurgents in their demand for greater Nagalim in 1972 and 2005. But without giving out details to counter the strong narrative against the BJP government circulating amongst the Meiteis, it seemed like a mere poll time accusation against the opposition.

On February 19, when Rajnath Singh was talking about the framework agreement, members of the powerful All Manipur Students Union (AMSU) were raising slogans outside the venue demanding that the Centre make the clauses of the framework agreement public.

The BJP may have promised the creation of a highway protection force – to free the crucial highways of perennial economic blockade by the UNC – in its vision document; however, it is yet to be seen how much this will help the party gain the ground it has lost among  Meitei voters.

The party has also tried reaching out to the youth by presenting its young chief ministers from the North East, Sarbananda Sonowal (Assam) and Pema Khandu (Arunachal Pradesh), at  poll rallies in the state. But again, whether that will turn into a dividend for it and topple the Congress applecart can’t be said with certainty. After all, the BJP has not announced who is going to be its “0%” chief minister if the party wins.

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