On 15 March, Nongthombam Biren Singh took oath as the Chief Minister (CM) of Manipur, the first from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As a political entity that had zero presence in the state till just a year ago, the BJP raked a sizeable mandate, ultimately terminating the Indian National Congress’ (Congress) 15-year rule. Their Manipur strategy can be best described as ‘context-specific’ and one that took into account the political realities of the state.
Of the 60 constituencies, the BJP won 21, winning 35 per cent of the votes, while the incumbent Congress won 28, winning 46.7 per cent of the votes. The remainder was won by one independent candidate and four smaller regional parties - the National Peoples’ Party (NPP) (four); the Naga Peoples’ Front (NPF) (four); and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) (one each).
Although the Congress won more seats, it failed to retain Imphal as the BJP hit the majority figure of 31 by producing letters of support from all the other non-Congress contestants, barring the independent candidate.
How did an insofar non-entity in Manipur dislodge the state's longstanding incumbent?
Manipur is a demographically complex state that has suffered from massive underdevelopment and multiple waves of insurgency. The past 15 years witnessed a protracted Congress rule under the leadership of Okram Ibobi Singh. Once popular among all groups, over the years, Ibobi’s reputation weaned due to stunted development, continued insecurity, corruption, nepotism, and policies that many viewed as divisive.
The long incumbency in Manipur suffered from public fatigue, if not outright dismissal. However, it was not anti-incumbency that was the central factor in launching the BJP to power because the Congress still won more seats.
The BJP’s dramatic 0-to-21 surge was no less than a tactical disruption of the incumbency, achieved via a localised, tailor-made and targeted agenda. Through a perfect mix of structural manoeuvres, regional alliances, and a dual ‘issue-oriented, individual-centric’ binary, the BJP successfully projected itself as a viable alternative to the incumbents.
The BJP’s meso level electoral approach in the state was aimed at consolidating the fractured opposition. In this, they already enjoyed a pre-poll advantage, as the three main non-Congress political parties in Manipur (NPP, NPF, and LJP) are all part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the centre and the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) at the regional level.
At the micro level, the BJP followed a largely top-down approach. Capitalising on the increasing dissatisfaction within Ibobi’s camp, it convinced a large number of old-time Congress members to switch sides - particularly those members of the legislative assembly who enjoyed their own standalone popularity but were unhappy with the state-of-affairs in their party. Evidently, this strategy worked, because several of these turncoats, including the new CM, won their respective constituencies for the BJP.
These manoeuvres were possible under the uncompromising party leadership of the BJP General Secretary, Ram Madhav, and the NEDA Convener, Himanta Biswa Sharma.
The BJP carefully tweaked its substantive agenda for Manipur, which is a multi-ethnic, secular-minded state characterised by a dual religious majority: Hindus (41.39 per cent) and Christians (41.29 per cent). It avoided using the ‘Hindutva nationalism’ card in the state, even in the Meitei-dominated valley districts, and instead focused on immediate issues like public infrastructure, drinking water, unemployment, corruption, and fake encounters. This was also to avoid a collision with the latent but distinct nationalism of Meitei Hindus.
Additionally, according to Dr Nehginpao Kipgen, Executive Director, Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, OP Jindal University, the presence of the top BJP leadership during the campaign, including that of the prime minister himself, “convinced many voters that the BJP government would not work against Manipur’s territorial integrity, which was a major concern in the minds of many, especially among the valley people.”
The ‘non-communal, individual-centric, issue-specific’ element of the BJP’s Manipur intervention is aptly represented in the leads from Tamenglong constituency, which is a Christian-majority district with a small Hindu population (2.13 per cent). Yet, the BJP's candidate Samuel Jendai Kamei won it with a significant margin of 8.2 per cent. Kamei, a popular figure in Tamenglong, ran a highly issue-centric campaign with solid presence on social media.
The Naga Factor
The Ibobi administration’s decision to carve seven new districts out of the Naga-speaking areas early in 2017 considerably eroded the Congress’ already-shrinking reputation in the hill districts. Conversely, the BJP became the new favourite of the Nagas, thanks to its closeness with the NPF and the 2015 peace accord signed with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN).
However, significantly, Congress won Naga-speaking constituencies like Ukhrul, Nungba, and Singhat. This is because of the party’s deep roots in these areas; presence of other ethnic groups (like Kukis, Nepalis, and Hmars); and the popularity of individual Congress-Naga candidates. Essentially, the Naga economic blockade and the 2015 peace accord had a non-uniform impact on the elections; and, the ‘individual popularity’ component worked as favourably for both the Congress and the BJP.
Overall, the BJP’s definitive victory in Manipur indicates at least a momentary shift from hard identity to broad, issue-based politics. However, it remains to be seen if the new administration’s unique narrative translates into genuine action at the ground level.