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Strong poll pitch by BJP, but rise of smaller parties likely to play key role in Manipur elections

Amid defections from BJP and Congress, and keeping in mind the complex political landscape of the state, experts believe smaller parties like the JD(U) and NPP have much to gain.

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Imphal: With the last phase of polling underway in Manipur, the rise of the smaller parties in the state once again looks imminent. 

In the 2017 state assembly elections, the BJP, with 21 seats, had clinched a victory despite coming in second to the Congress, which had emerged as the single-largest party with 28 seats.

The BJP managed to get the required numbers to form government after securing the support of the National People’s Party (NPP) and the Naga People’s Front (NPF), which had won four seats each, as well as the Lok Janshakti Party, which had won 1 seat in the 60-seat Assembly.

In this election, however, the NPP led by Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma is one of BJP’s main competitors. The two parties are contesting separately amid strains in the alliance.

This is significant because the NPP and BJP are currently part of the ruling coalitions in Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur itself. NPP is also a part of the BJP-led Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA).

About a week ago, former chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh had also said that the Congress was open to allying with “like-minded” parties like NPP in case it falls short of numbers. 

Also in the fray is Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), which is contesting 38 seats, and stands to gain from defections from both BJP and Congress.

Contesting solo, the BJP’s campaign this time was characterised by a slew of Union ministers as star campaigners, political consultants, hoardings and revived schemes. 

Experts, however, were of the opinion that despite its best efforts, the party would still come short of crossing the majority mark given the series of defections it has seen, and the complex political landscape of the state.

Election results will be announced on 10 March.

Also Read: Defections, flailing leadership, pockets of hope — how Congress ‘khubak’ declined in Manipur

The rise of small parties

Among the parties that stand to gain from the BJP’s ticket distribution debacle in January discontentment that followed its announcement of candidates for Manipur, that led to a series of defections  is the JD(U). It had caused quite a stir in political circles when it announced the decision to field 38 candidates a first for the JD(U) in Manipur.

Of its 38 candidates, 10 were BJP defectors and five were from the Congress. One of the BJP defectors, Thangjam Arunkumar a strong contender for the Wangkhei seat told ThePrint: “I chose JD(U) because it is the BJP’s alliance partner at the Centre and Manipur being a small state, we need resources.”

With hopes of his party winning at least 15 seats, Dorendro Maisham, secretary general of the JD(U)’s state unit, said: “JD(U) will be kingmaker, even if the Congress and NPP band together, they can’t win without us.”

The NPP, which was declared the eighth national party in India by the Election Commission in 2019, has also made its ambitions clear in Manipur. It is contesting 38 of the 60 assembly seats this time, compared to the nine seats it contested in the 2017 polls.

NPP chief Conrad Sangma had earlier told ThePrint that his party’s alliance with the BJP had been “very, very challenging”. 

There are two other factors behind NPP’s expansion the party leader’s opinion of its growing political significance in the state, and BJP’s ticket distribution debacle, which had again led to more disgruntled names jumping ship to NPP.

Speaking to ThePrint last month, NPP leader Joykumar Singh, who was deputy CM in the N. Biren Singh-led government, had noted that 60-70 per cent of the candidates who had joined the NPP from BJP would stand a good chance at winning. 

Other surprises in the political landscape this time included the rise of Kuki political parties like the Kuki People’s Alliance (KPA) and the Kuki National Assembly (KNA), whose candidates were in the fray in the first phase of the polls. 

According to Dr D.L. Haokip, a professor at Guwahati University, these parties came about as a result of stronger influences wielded by local and regional parties like NPP and NPF. 

“The formation of KPA and revival of KNA is an impact of how regional parties were able to show some amount of power. The significance of regional parties seems to be reviving in the context of Manipur,” Dr Haokip said.

BJP’s ‘Project Manipur’

The BJP’s campaign for Manipur elections began just days after Adhikarimayum Sharda Devi was appointed state president back in June 2020, with a state executive meeting.

“After that there were regular discussions with teams from the Centre including JP Nadda, Sambit Patra, who is the in-charge, and BL Santosh, among others. Nadda ji has visited Manipur a total of five times till now,” Sharda Devi told ThePrint.

The Association of Billion Minds (ABM) a team of 80-85 people conducted surveys for the party. “From July to September, in-depth surveys across all constituencies were conducted. These are door-to-door and telephonic surveys, to understand if people were happy with the government,” a source in the political consultancy firm told ThePrint.

Following this, campaigns like ‘CM Da Haisi (Let’s tell the CM)’ were implemented and defunct outreach programmes like ‘Go to Hills’ and ‘Go To Village’ were revived by Chief Minister N. Biren Singh.

The ‘CM Da Haisi’ campaign was launched in October last year with the aim to directly address public grievances. In November, Biren Singh also launched the ‘Go To Hills 2.0’, a programme to ensure doorstep delivery of benefits to people in remote areas), and ‘Go To Village 2.0’, an initiative that included public service delivery camps with stalls set up by various government departments in rural areas.

With their development agenda in focus, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders held rallies in the state

“The Government of India has done so much for the state of Manipur in terms of development and every ministry is highlighting the work done for the state of Manipur,” BJP national spokesperson Mmhonlümo Kikon told ThePrint.

“BJP as a party has been putting emphasis on publicity with newspaper ads etc. A flag at every lamp post and leaders’ posters this culture was not there before,” said Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of Imphal Review of Arts and Politics. He, however, added that the party’s “visibility” may not translate into seats.

“Once upon a time we thought it was going to be a cake walk for the BJP because they are the ruling party in the Centre and the state. Now, after the BJP votebank breakdown after the distribution of tickets, the equation has changed considerably,” he said.

(Edited by Gitanjali Das)

Also Read: Biren Singh did good work in Manipur, BJP’s call on CM always democratic, says Bhupender Yadav


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