Polarisation, identity-based politics make poll predictions difficult, says Sushanta Talukdar

Ms. Awon VS, a Tangkhul Naga woman in her fifties, stays in Ukhrul town, about 83 km from Manipur's capital city Imphal; she makes a living selling dry fish, wild animal meat and agri produce brought down by residents of her village Tusom, which has no electricity. She visits her family once or twice a month. It takes about four to five hours to get there; in the rainy season it's almost impossible for vehicles to take the unsurfaced road.

This is the real story of the people in Manipur's hill districts, often forgotten in the den of the elections. Of Manipur's nine districts, five are hill districts — Senapati, Chandel, Ukhrul, Tamenglong, (all Naga-dominated) and Churachandpur. In the 60-member Manipur Assembly, the hill districts account for 20 seats which include 19 reserved for Scheduled Tribes while one seat Kangpokpi in Senapati district is a general seat. In 2007, the Congress won five seats, the United Naga Council (UNC)-backed Independents won six, Naga People's Party (NPP) won three, RJD two, NCP in one and three were won by Independents. Of the total 17,40,576 voters in the State, 7,07,143 voters are in the 20 Assembly constituencies of the hill districts. The Congress has put up candidates in all the 20 seats, while the Naga People's Front (NPF), the ruling party in the neighbouring state of Nagaland, has fielded candidates in 12 seats including 11 Naga-dominated seats. The BJP is also trying to make its presence felt in the hills

The NPF is counting on the support base of the UNC, the apex body of the Nagas in Manipur and hopes to repeat the UNC's 2007 performance. As in 2007, this time too the issue of “Naga integration” has become the dominant issue in the four Naga-dominated hill districts. However, it has received wider attention this time because the “Naga integration” card has been played by a new player — the NPF. Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, the star campaigner of the NPF harped on this issue while campaigning in Manipur. The Congress is stressing development and co-existence to counter the NPF campaign.

In 2007, UNC-backed Independents won all the three seats in Ukhrul district, the home district of the general secretary of Naga underground outfit National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) Thuingaleng Muivah. Three years later when Mr Muivah wanted to visit his birthplace Somdal village in Ukhrul district in 2010, the Okram Ibobi Singh-led Congress coalition government refused to allow him to enter Manipur even though the Ministry of Home Affairs granted permission to the NSCN(IM) general secretary.

Ibobi's tough stand leading to deployment of the Manipur Rifles at Mao gate and police firing on Naga protestors killing two sparked angry protests by several Naga groups. All this happened amidst an economic blockade called by the All Naga Students of Manipur along the two National Highways 39 and 53, the lifelines of Manipur, choking supply of essential goods. The ANSAM blockade was lifted after 68 days.

The blockade was called to oppose holding of Autonomus District Council (ADC) polls. The Ibobi government, however, went ahead and conducted the ADC polls after 20 years and the governance in the hills was transferred to elected representatives although Naga groups continued to denounce these bodies.

The ruling Congress justified holding the ADC polls saying the absence of elected district councils amounted to denying the hill people their right to local self-governance. Besides, development funds provided to ADCs could not be utilised if there were no elections.

The Congress hopes that apart from holding the ADC polls, the inauguration of a number of developmental projects, including three 33/11 KVA power sub-stations at Jessami, Tamei and Tousem, a 50-bed hospital at Senapati, a PHC building at Jessami, a Navodaya school building at Tamenglong and mini-secretariats at Tamenglong and Senapati by Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram during his visit to Manipur in November 2-3, 2011 would help the ruling party.

The non-Naga constituencies of the hill districts are also poised for a close contest this time with five opposition parties, the Manipur People's Party (MPP), NCP, RJD, CPI(M) and JD (U) forging a pre-poll alliance called the People's Democratic Front (PDF). The Trinamool Congress and the CPI are going it alone. In Senapati district, it will be interesting to see if the Congress bid to win over the Kuki as well as other community votes by signing a memorandum with the Sadar Hills Districthood Demand Committee (SHDDC) that imposed a 100-days blockade to press for their demand for a separate Sadar Hills district to be carved out of Naga-dominated Senapati district pays any dividend.

The UNC, which opposed the SHDDC's demand, called a counter-blockade on August that continued for 100 days resulting in total 123 days of blockade along NH 39.

Political observers feel that because of the sharp polarisation and complexities of identity-based politics, voters in Manipur hills are likely to return fractured mandate this time too.