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BJP on edge, Nadda to visit Manipur as resentment against CM Biren Singh grows ahead of polls

Last week, BJP high command summoned Manipur CM N. Biren Singh and state party chief A. Sharda Devi to Delhi, and made several inquiries about the current situation.

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New Delhi: Manipur is one of the six BJP-ruled states where assembly polls are scheduled to take place next year. However, several factors have alerted the BJP high command to the party’s precarious condition in the state.

These include resentment among tribal legislators, demands from key allies for more portfolios in the state cabinet, and a growing discontent among BJP MLAs against incumbent Chief Minister N. Biren Singh. 

Last week, the BJP high command summoned the Manipur CM, state minister Th. Biswajit Singh, and state party chief A. Sharda Devi to Delhi, and made several inquiries about the current situation in the state. The leaders were also asked about their roadmap for winning the 2022 assembly elections, which are scheduled to be held alongside those in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Goa in the spring. 

Now, BJP national president J.P. Nadda is scheduled to visit the state on 9-10 October to take stock of the situation. During this visit, Nadda is expected to meet all the MLAs of the ruling coalition to gauge their mood. 

Biren Singh was sworn in as Manipur’s first-ever BJP CM in 2017 after the party formed a coalition government. The assembly elections that year had thrown up a fractured verdict. The BJP, which won 21 of the state’s 60 assembly seats, eventually formed the government with the help of other parties, including the National People’s Party (NPP).

Last year, the Biren Singh government survived a crucial trust vote, necessitated by the withdrawal of support by the NPP, due to a last-minute intervention by Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, the party’s point-person for the Northeast. 

The NPP, which had allegedly been miffed with Biren Singh’s “unilateral” functioning, stayed with the BJP. However, the discontent against Biren Singh doesn’t seem to have ebbed.

In September, the BJP’s election in-charge for the state Bhupender Yadav held a meeting with the CM, among others, regarding the status of preparations for the forthcoming assembly polls. Following Amit Shah’s sudden summons to the CM last week, there have been rumours of a possible “leadership change”.  

Senior party leaders admit there are some problems, but say efforts are being made to resolve them. 

“Elections are just round the corner and replacing Biren Singh at this point of time will not be an effective solution,” said a senior BJP leader. “He has been asked to take everyone along and an instruction has been given to him that instead of keeping the problems in limbo, his focus should be on solving them immediately.” 

BJP state president Sharda Devi told ThePrint that party leaders are fully aware of issues that “have caused some resentment among the people”. 

“These issues will be discussed in detail during the upcoming Manipur visit of the party’s national president,” she added.

Discussing the interaction last week, Devi said it was “an organisational meeting”. “Since only four months are left for the assembly election, so Amit Shah ji also sought full details about how the party is going to retain power once again,” she added. “Strategies were also discussed.”

Also Read: This is how Amit Shah broke Manipur deadlock and swung state back in BJP’s favour

Why the resentment is growing

Geographically, Manipur is divided into hill and valley regions.

The origin of the latest round of controversy lies in an order — issued by the assembly speaker last month — for the appointment of nine non-tribal (or valley) members in the Hill Areas Committee, the “highest body in the state at the legislative level to oversee the planning, implementation and monitoring of all development activities in the hill areas”. 

The committee has hill-area MLAs as members. One of the reasons cited by the speaker while introducing the proposal was that parts of the valley constituencies have hills.

Legislators belonging to the hill districts opposed the proposal. While the growing uproar forced the speaker to postpone his decision, the legislators of the hill committee are said to be still furious with the move. 

Before this, there was another subject of resentment as the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Bill, 2021 — aimed at providing greater autonomy to the Hill Areas Committee and the district councils — was not introduced during the monsoon session in August, as was expected.

In 1971, Article 371C of the Constitution was introduced to allow autonomy of administration in the hill districts of Manipur, which are primarily home to tribals. It was through this instrument that the rule of the autonomous district councils was established in the state’s hill areas. The 2021 bill seeks to amend this.

The BJP government’s failure to introduce the amendment bill had Manipur’s 10 hill districts up in arms. As many as 18 MLAs are elected from these districts. 

In light of this, BJP MLAs rushed to Delhi to complain against the CM, and were assured of an amicable solution by the party high command.

“The hill council approved the draft of a Bill to provide greater autonomy to the councils. However, due to failure of the government to introduce it during the monsoon session, several student organisations sought resignation of local MLAs,” said a tribal MLA who didn’t wish to be named. 

“Now the matter is pending with the chief minister. If this is not settled in time, then the opposition parties might harm our electoral prospects by turning it into a big issue during the forthcoming election. We have apprised the central high command about all these things.”

The valley region is said to dominate state politics, and its opposition to the bill is seen as the reason why CM Biren Singh allegedly put it in cold storage by creating a committee to ascertain its constitutional validity. 

At first, student organisations started agitating against the delay, and the number of strikes and unrest has since increased in Manipur.  

In order to bridge the gap between the valley and the hill regions, Biren Singh launched a drive “Chalo parvat ki ore (let’s go to the hills)”. But tribal students organisations opposed this campaign by alleging that this programme has been initiated with an intention to grab land in tribal areas. As a result, the CM had to postpone the programme last month. 

The BJP government had been gearing up to turn the state’s “improved” law-and-order situation into a big election issue for the upcoming elections. But the plank could lose traction following the 22 September abduction and murder of Naga leader Athuan Abonmai by suspected militants. 

During his Delhi visit, the chief minister had requested Union Home Minister Shah to get the matter investigated by the NIA, but student organisations of the state organised a Manipur bandh Monday, which was also supported by other organisations. 

A BJP MLA, who wanted to stay anonymous, said Biren Singh is “running his administration with the support of a handful of bureaucrats and the MLAs have no role whatsoever in its functioning”. 

“The main reason for last year’s rebellion was his authoritarianism. Now only four months are left before the election and the growing discontent in the hill areas at this time is not a good sign for us. The BJP can benefit only from the fact that the Congress is too weak and they do not have funds to contest elections. Still, a large number of people are angry with the chief minister’s style of functioning,” the MLA said. 

Another issue that can create trouble is that some allies are seeking a redistribution of their portfolios, demanding some lucrative ministries. Just before Biren Singh’s departure for Delhi, sources in the party said, MLAs of ally Naga People’s Front (NPF) held a meeting and apprised the government of their demands. 

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)

Also Read: Modi govt’s pitch for 2022 UP election — booklet on how BJP worked for OBC welfare


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