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2019 General Election: Varied factors at play in Manipur

Although it is difficult to ascertain voting trends in a state as diverse as Manipur, the 2019 General Election has seen some interesting developments across the two constituencies

Ninglun Hanghal | Imphal |

What sets apart the 2019 General Election from earlier ones is the decorations of polling booths. In Manipur, another new thing has been a large number of women polling personnel. Moreover, in the North-east, there is tremendous effort being put into campaigning and publicity by the Election Commission, state chief electoral officers and others, including the media.

Otherwise, as usual, parliamentary elections are no “festivals”, especially in rural tribal areas. That is unlike state elections where it is a real “festival” with lots of energy and varied events. There is less enthusiasm for parliamentary elections in the North-east at large, even though the voter turnout tells a different tale.

One key reason for the same is that in Manipur, or North-east India, there is a general perception that a Member of Parliament, who sits in New Delhi, cannot significantly influence the life of a person living in a far-flung corner of India. Truth be told, most voters do not even know who their representative is. What significance do two MPs from Manipur have in the sea of the 543-member Parliament?

Interestingly though, a few things were observed in Manipur this time.

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In the otherwise disinterested voters of the state, especially those in the Outer constituency, election fever kickstarted when Kuki militants were reported to have supported a particular party candidate. The veracity of the said “support letter” written to party heads in Delhi, which went viral on social media, could not be ascertained as both the militant outfit and the candidate denied so.

Another major breaking news was that of a militant outfit’s diktat to villagers through village headmen. It is an open secret in Manipur that militants, commonly known as undergrounds, are involved in the elections be it in the hills or valley across communities and ethnic groups. But this time it became an election plank with a section of society and political parties conveniently using it against rivals to attack them or as a rallying point to garner support.

Added to that was the already existing ethic/communal divide. Thus, the Outer Manipur constituency came alive this time with people divided along community/ethnic lines with added flavour from the militant groups. Next to militant groups are the civil society organisations (traditional tribe-based organisations) who are key players in elections as far as tribal areas are concerned.

In this regard, a significant trend could be observed in the Outer Manipur constituency. In the past, there have been boycotts by the public and CSOs, particularly in Naga areas, but this time the voter turnout suggests a huge development. The overall voter turnout in the state was over 80 per cent in both constituencies, which marks a jump from 2014 when the figure was well below 80. That said, it is by no means an indicator of free and fair elections.

In rural areas, booth capture, proxy voting and all sorts of malpractices are the norm. For a state as diverse as Manipur, voter turn-out does not really provide the real picture.

The election scene can vary within the same district. For instance, in a town like Lamka — the district headquarter of Churachandpur — polling day was like any other day of the week. There was no queue in any polling booth and by 3 pm most were closing down. The scenario in the urban areas, say the capital Imphal, is markedly different as the city shuts down. If a town like Lamka has
indifferent voters, Imphal is more involved with reports of poll-related violence. In Naga areas and a politically-sensitive district like Ukhrul, voter turnout was more than 80 per cent.

Who has the upper hand in Manipur? This General Election has been one of the most interesting in the state till date. To begin with, it would be necessary to understand the social set up of the constituencies.

The Inner Manipur constituency comprises the valley-plain area with Meitei voters while the Outer Manipur constituency comprises tribals and a pocket of Meiteis, who are predominately Scheduled Caste, and other minorities. Thus the election scenarios are quite different within Manipur. For the Inner constituency voters go by party leanings or individual popularity, while Outer constituency voters are divided along community/ethnic lines. In the Inner Manipur constituency, the ruling BJP has an upper hand. But an equally popular candidate from the Congress appears to have given the BJP candidate a tough fight.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill, the recent university imbroglio and the arrest of a journalist are still fresh in young minds. In the midst of those two strong contenders, there was a third candidate from the Communist Party of India. If social media or even the road show turnout is any indication, the left party could gain this time.

Moreover, the CPI has the support of an upcoming popular regional party, the National People’s Party. For the Outer constituency, the ethnic/tribal connection remains a factor with the two major ethnic players being the Kukis and Nagas. Militants or CSO involvement is another angle where diktats, direct or indirect, are the norm. The interesting fight this time would be between the Kukis and Nagas as both have more than two candidates.

The Nagas have three strong contenders — the Naga People’s Front, Congress and North East India Development Party. There are three equally strong candidates from the rival Kuki camp — the ruling BJP, National People’s Party and Janata Dal (U). In this scenario, both ethnic group votes will be divided within themselves.

While the ruling BJP has an edge in terms of resources and support, the minority voters, who include religious, ethnic and tribal minorities, become significant. This has always been the case in the Outer Manipur parliamentary seat. This time too these factors could well play a deciding role in the deeply-divided ethnic communities of the Outer Manipur constituency.

(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Imphal and Dimapur)