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It's Game, Set and Match for the BJP in Manipur. Next Stop, Meghalaya

BJP has already cemented a strong ally in Conrad Sangma, whose political roots lie in Meghalaya's Tura hills. Beware Mukul Sangma, BJP is coming.

Subhajit Sengupta | CNN-News18SubhajitSG

Updated:March 13, 2017, 1:16 PM IST
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It's Game, Set and Match for the BJP in Manipur. Next Stop, Meghalaya
BJP has already cemented a strong ally in Conrad Sangma, whose political roots lie in Meghalaya's Tura hills. Beware Mukul Sangma, BJP is coming. (PTI)
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Imphal: The fine art of horse-trading which was once perfected by the Congress has come to haunt them again. In both Manipur and Goa, the Congress emerged as the single-largest party but simply lost out to the BJP in the numbers game. It hurts them even more in Manipur as the master strategist for the BJP is the man who had once delivered Meghalaya, Assam and a number of northeastern states to the Congress. But the Congress couldn't accommodate his ambition.

Thus, when former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi decided to groom his son Gaurav and not the de facto number two Himanta Biswasarma for the Chief Minister's job, the latter moved to the BJP. In a span of two years, he delivered Assam, managed Arunachal and now has pulled off Manipur.

ALSO READ | Congress MLA Switches Loyalty, BJP Set to Form Govt With NPP, LJP Support

With 21 seats in the kitty, the BJP needed the support of almost all the non-Congress MLAs. Between Ram Madhav and Himanta Biswasarma, they managed just that. The Naga People's Front (NPF) had already said they would support a non-Congress government. Sangma's National People's Party (NPP) came in with all four MLAs, so did the lone MLAs from the LJP and the Trinamool Congress. And finally, when the BJP leadership drove in to meet the Governor, seen in Himanta’s car was the Congress MLA from Andro constituency, Shyamkumar Singh. He later said many more Congress MLAs were willing to cross over.

An angry Ibobi Singh did a late night press conference, but his body language was too telling. Ibobi staked claim to form the government and asked the Governor to invite him first as the Congress was the single largest party. He also showed a letter from the NPP state leadership where the Manipur General Secretary wrote his party's support for the Congress. But this appeared too little, too late. The BJP had already paraded four NPP MLAs before the Governor along with the national president, Conrad Sangma.

For the BJP, forming a government in Manipur is part of the dramatic turnaround of its fortunes in the Northeast, coming as it does after the stunning victory in Assam. In fact, the Manipur success can be traced back to the victory in Assam.

It was a heady evening for the BJP. The first-ever democratically elected BJP government had taken oath under Sarbananda Sonowal in Dispur, Assam. The Prime Minister and his entire Cabinet was witness to the gala swearing-in ceremony. There was a melee of reporters at the newly opened Taj Vivanta. The hotel had become the de facto headquarters of the BJP as the party top brass was staying there. That's when one of the backroom boys of Ram Madhav said he was flying off to Imphal the next morning. This reporter asked: “Already?” Pat came the reply: “There isn't much time.”

Time was in short supply indeed. Manipur was up for polls in less than a year and, unlike most other states, there was virtually no network of the RSS or other Sangh affiliates on the ground. The BJP realised that building the party organically would not be the best option. Thus, after a quick study, they figured out there was palpable anger against Chief Minister Ibobi Singh. Three terms was a long time. Fatigue was visible in the administration and the effect on the voters was all too obvious.

ALSO READ | Chidambaram Accuses BJP of 'Stealing' Elections in Goa and Manipur

In 2012, while Ibobi swept Manipur, many attributed the defeat to the divided opposition. Thus, the Bharatiya Janata Party decided to build a platform for all the anti-Ibobi faces, leaders and legislators. The focus was to get leaders who were already popular, those who, over the last 15 years, had fallen out of favour with Ibobi Singh, but those who had individual popularity and charisma. Thus began the great 'house-warming' party. Leaders from the main opposition party, the Trinamool Congress, were the first to join. Then the dissident Congress leaders joined in. Most of the top leaders, including probable CM faces, have actually migrated to the party recently. Senior leaders of the BJP, be it N Biren, Y Erabot or O Chauba, had all been part of the Congress once.

However, the party suffered a setback when one of their most visible faces, Jaikishan Khumukcham, who was with the Trinamool Congress earlier, was won over by the Congress. At the height of the Naga blockade and the violence during the counter blockade in the Imphal valley, he decided to join the Congress. He blamed the BJP's central leadership for not being able to stop the blockade by Naga groups. He echoed CM Ibobi Singh's statement that the Centre, which was in talks with the NSCN(IM), could have stopped the blockade if they wanted.

This shift also suggested the change in perception in the state. Ibobi Singh, who appeared to be down and out till this moment, was able to work up some sort of resentment against the BJP in the valley. This was a make or break moment for the BJP. It was getting to be identified with the Nagas, and even if they swept the hills, it wouldn’t have been enough for them to win the election. The valley and the adjoining areas counted for over 40 of the 60 seats in the Assembly.

The party saw itself in an unenviable position of being seen as anti-Meitei, a predominately caste Hindu community. Thus, the party decided to do a tight-rope walk. While the campaigning in Moreh, Ukhrul and other hill areas continued, in the valley, they only spoke about the issues people were fed up with. 'Fake-encounters', corruption, lack of drinking water and employment opportunities became the theme of the campaign.

An advertorial blitzkrieg across all mediums was launched. This almost bordered over enthusiasm, as all the eight top dailies had a full-page advertisement a day before the election, a clear violation of the Model Code of Conduct. The Election Commission took this very seriously and an FIR was registered against the local leadership and the newspapers. The top leadership of the party was para-dropped in the state and attempts were made to reach out to each of the communities. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a successful rally. BJP chief Amit Shah, too, held a number of rallies, while Prakash Javadekar, the state in-charge, camped in. There was the duo of Ram Madhav and Himanta Biswasarma, fresh from the Assam success, trying to replicate the strategy here.

The attempt was at giving a credible alternative to the Ibobi government while keeping the usual 'nationalistic' noises away. The Imphal valley, which has seen many insurgent groups demanding freedom, has a strong latent sense of Meitei nationalism. The BJP, which already found itself on the wrong side of the four-month-old blockade, feared a washout if it borrowed UP's blue print of a 'nationalist' campaign. Thus, it was all about presenting a credible option, a close re-run of the campaigns against the Congress-ruled states, which they have already captured and a campaign style that the party has almost perfected.

Thus is the story of the BJP in Manipur. The battle has been fought, the results are out. From a zero in 2012 to 21 in 2017, it surely has been a satisfying journey. But knowing the leadership here, the eyes are already set on the hill state of Meghalaya, another Congress-ruled state, which Himanta understands very keenly. An alliance here with the NPP means the BJP has already cemented a strong ally in Conrad Sangma, whose political roots lie in Meghalaya's Tura hills. Beware Mukul Sangma, BJP is coming.

| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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