Opposition is in disarray, with many of its members knocking at the doors of Congress

The advancing of the date for the Assembly elections in Manipur to January 28 has caught political parties unawares.

Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, on an inauguration spree of several new government facilities — only last month did he and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cut the ribbon for four new building complexes in Imphal — had several more openings lined up but now finds himself restrained by the model code of conduct. The Opposition is in disarray, with many of its members knocking at the doors of the ruling Congress.

The term of the ninth Assembly expires in February. Mr. Ibobi Singh is the first Chief Minister to lead the State for two consecutive terms, giving Manipur a measure of stability.

The Congress had secured 31 seats in the 60-member House in the last elections, and could have formed a government on its own. But Mr. Ibobi Singh continued a coalition, from the previous term, with the CPI, which won four MLAs, though it was not an easy partnership. Disgruntled Congress members complained that two ministerial berths given to the CPI were too many, while the CPI's rank and file said it was too few.

But the marriage of convenience is apparently over.

Announcing the first batch of 19 candidates for the CPI, State unit secretary M. Nara asserted that the party would go it alone. It has also kept out of a pre-poll alliance formed by six Opposition parties.

While straws in the wind indicate that the Congress is well placed to win a third term, Mr. Ibobi Singh is keen on ensuring a hat-trick for himself, too.

The Congress is the only party contesting all 60 seats. On an average, four applicants are clamouring for each seat. That includes Opposition MLAs stampeding towards the Congress.

Pradesh Congress Committee president Gaikhangam said 16 Opposition MLAs were in the queue for Congress ticket. Both he and the Chief Minister have given enough indication that they will be considered. Sensing that senior party members may be denied ticket to accommodate the Opposition MLAs, some Block and District Congress presidents have submitted memoranda to Mr. Gaikhangam, saying that if the party members are neglected in the distribution of ticket, the rank and file will revolt.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gaikhangam has triumphantly declared that there is now no Opposition in the State. That almost all Opposition members have chosen to remain silent at this barb is an indication of which way the wind is blowing.

‘We are alive and kicking’

The only exception was Okram Joy of the Manipur People's Party (MPP), who recently told some journalists that the Assembly proceeding records showed that the Opposition was alive and kicking. But he, too, was forced to concede that even MPP MLAs were hankering after Congress ticket. At the recent 44th foundation anniversary of the MPP in Imphal, out of 5 party MLAs, Joy was the only one present.

Trying to make up for the lack of an Opposition campaign, Mr. Joy is reminding voters that it was the Congress that signed the infamous merger agreement with the United Naga Integration Council which is all for the disintegration of Manipur for the creation of a greater Nagaland by bringing all ‘Naga areas' under one administrative roof with Nagaland.

Also, the MPP and other Opposition parties, including the BJP, the NCP, the RJD and the CPI(M), have come together in a pre-poll alliance.

Prakash Javadekar, BJP national spokesperson and election in charge of Manipur, has proclaimed this alliance to be the turning point. That remains to be seen — the BJP itself failed to secure a single seat in the last elections.

The CPI and the Trinamool Congress have stayed out of the alliance. In the latest by-election in the Konthoujam constituency, the Trinamool Congress defeated the Congress. State unit president Kim Gangte says her party will emerge as the second largest party, if not the first. She is confident that the Trinamool Congress will play a major role in the government formation.

The PCC president says the party will fight the elections on issues like development, peace, communal harmony and emotional and territorial integration. Congress leaders maintain that the party is all for the territorial integrity of Manipur, pointing to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's public commitment in this regard on December 3 in Imphal.

Mr. Ibobi Singh is highlighting his government's achievements — development works and the State's better financial health that ensures its employees are paid salaries regularly. He says that as people do not support senseless violence, insurgency is on the wane, and there are increasing instances of massive surrenders by the misguided youths.

Congress leaders have also dismissed the pre-poll alliance as a frantic move on the part of the disorganised Opposition parties, saying it exposes their weakness. In the past, Opposition alliances have crumbled over the nitty-gritty of seat-sharing, leading to the constituent parties fielding their own candidates. Even the two ruling partners, the CPI and the Congress, have parted ways ahead of all elections on the issue of seat adjustment.

Besides, the Opposition parties as a whole have a big question to answer about what they were doing to help the suffering people during the economic blockade of Manipur for 123 days in 2011, and the 20 days of strike along the national highways that are the lifelines of the State. Not a single Opposition member or party was visible then.

During the blockade, imposed by the Kuki and Naga tribals to press their conflicting territorial demands, people had to buy petrol at Rs. 200 a litre, potato at Rs.50, LPG cylinder at Rs.2,000 or egg at Rs. 10. Most Opposition MLAs, then already hoping to be accommodated by the Congress, did not breathe a word against Mr. Ibobi Singh's government for its lame-duck administration.

That silence is likely to haunt the Opposition alliance during the campaign.

A new factor

The emergence of the Naga People's Front (NPF), a Nagaland-based political party, is a new factor that the parties in the State will have to contend with. NPF president S. Leizietsu and Manipur unit president G. Gaingam announced at a meeting in Senapati district on December 30 that the NPF would strive to bring the ‘Naga areas' under the same administrative roof with Nagaland. It will contest 14 seats. Two of them are in the Sadar Hills, the stronghold of the Kukis, the archrivals of the Nagas on such issues. There are 55 applicants for the 14 seats. They pledged at the meeting that those who were denied NPF ticket would extend full cooperation to the party candidates.

Congress leaders privately dismiss the NPF as no threat at all. In the past, some Naga groups had opposed the elections to the Autonomous District Council and banned all elections. And yet the people had elected their representatives. They are confident that this time too, the people will come out without fear to vote for the Congress candidates.

While the Congress seems poised for a third-term, Mr. Ibobi Singh may find it more difficult to secure a third term as the Chief Minister. Some senior Ministers privately say that after his 10-year stint, he should graciously make way for others.

Some recent violence with guns and other lethal weapons has raised official concerns for a peaceful election. In one such incident, BJP leader Najma Heptullah had to flee when some persons, armed with axes, machetes, bamboo staffs and said to be the supporters of a national party, attacked her and other party functionaries at Moijing, a Muslim village in Thoubal, the constituency of Mr. Ibobi Singh.