In the recently concluded Manipur assembly election, the Congress won 28 of the 60 assembly seats to become the single-largest party in the state, followed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which won 21 seats. By the evening of 12 March 2017—the day after the election results were announced—the BJP had the support of the National People’s Party and Naga People’s Front, which won four seats each, and that of the Lok Janshakti Party, Trinamool Congress and one independent member, with one seat each. On 13 March, Najma Heptullah, the state’s governor, asked the Congress’s Okram Ibobi Singh, the incumbent chief minister, to submit his resignation, and invited the BJP-led coalition to form the government and prove their majority on the floor of the house “as soon as possible.” Though he is yet to prove his majority, two days later, N Biren Singh took oath as the new chief minister of Manipur—marking the end of Ibobi’s 15-year tenure, and the start of the BJP’s first-ever rule in the state.
The BJP’s vote share in Manipur increased from two percent in 2012, to 36 percent in 2017. The Congress’s vote share was 35 percent. Manipur comprises 16 districts—ten of which are in the hill regions of the state and six in the valley. Of its 60 constituencies, 40 are in the valley districts, and the remaining in the hill districts. The hill districts are dominated by two of the state’s tribal communities—the Nagas and the Kukis—whereas the Meitei community dominates the valley districts. The prevailing political situation in Manipur leading up to the elections—with an ongoing economic blockade on two national highways and conflicts between the dominant communities—provides an explanation for the BJP’s rise to power in the state.
Manipur went to polls reeling under the effects of an economic blockade that began on 1 November 2016. The United Naga Council, a civil-society organisation of the Naga community of Manipur, enforced the blockade in protest against a state government proposal to create new districts in the Sadar Hills and Jiribam regions in the state. The blockade did not deter the Ibobi-led government, which announced the creation of seven new districts, carved out of the existing nine, in December 2016.
Many in the Kuki community have been demanding the creation of these new districts since the 1970s, as they believe it will improve development and administrative efficiency in the region. The state government justified the creation of the districts on the same grounds. The Naga community’s opposition to the districts dates back to the Kuki’s demand for them. According to the UNC, the creation of the districts reflects an attempt to take away and divide the Nagas’ ancestral lands without their consent—in particular, a part of the Sadar Hills and Jiribam regions, which was carved out from Naga-dominated districts in the state. Tripartite talks as well as calls from various civil societies, church bodies, and concerned citizens failed to convince the UNC to call off the blockade, or the state to revoke the creation of the districts. The blockade severely affected access to essential commodities for people in the state—the price of petrol, for instance, rose up to Rs 300 per litre in November 2016. Sections of the Meitei community in the valley imposed counter-blockades in opposition to the UNC’s actions, and restricted the transport of goods meant for hill districts. This deadlock continued into the election, without any headway.
Amid these complexities, the BJP relied upon the anti-Congress sentiments and made inroads into the hill districts over these issues. During a campaign rally in Imphal on 1 March 2017, Amit Shah, the president of the BJP, said the party “will lift the ongoing economic blockade by any means within 24 hours after forming its government in the state.”