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Deep chasm between hills and valleys, propensity for peace and aspiration for development

As the ruling BJP raises issues such as peace and gangless governance in their campaigns, Congress emphasizes ‘change’ and the NPP is touted as the ‘dark horse’ of this election

Manipur, the “land of jewels”, is full of variety and difference. When one lands in the tiny northeastern state, the stark geographic distinction between valley and hills is visible from the plane’s window. This difference exists in arena politics too.

There are 60 assembly seats in Manipur, and in 2017 the Congress got 28 and the Bharatiya Janata Party 21. Despite this, the BJP managed to forge alliances, gained the support of the National People’s Party ( NPP) and the Naga Popular Front (NPF). ), and formed the government under Chief Minister N Biren Singh, a former journalist and footballer who undoubtedly knows how to play a good political game.

The hills make up 90% of the state’s land area with 40% of voters, while the valley makes up 10% of the land area but about 60% of voters. Of the 60 places, 40 are in the valley and 20 in the hills.

Arriving in Imphal, we got into a car and asked the driver about the local vibe. Elderly man Budham Singh said: “It’s BJP because now they’re just there. Everyone moves from Congress to BJP. The most important factor is that there is no bandh, no economic blockade like before. A problem is there in the BJP here, two to three people outside of Biren want to be the CM. But in the hills they might not get what they are looking for.

The ruling BJP has raised the issues of peace, development and tapeless governance. The “twin-engine government” strategy is also marketed here. Many Congress leaders have changed sides lately, so the party is only emphasizing “change,” without giving any further explanation.

Traveling the hills as well as the valley separately is key to understanding people’s pulse.

There are 40 seats in the valley where the BJP also did well in 2017, but in the hills the Congress got 9 seats, BJP 5, NPF 4 and NPP 2.

MANIPUR TRIBAL MOSAIC
53% of the population is Meitei, followed by 24% Naga and 16% Kuki. Hindus and Meiteis are there in the valley and in the hills largely Kukis, Nagas with Christian domination.

News 18 traveled both in the valley and in the hills. The mood in the BJP camp is optimistic. Party State General Secretary Premananda said, “Oh it’s hanna hanna (again and again) BJP. We have brought peace to the state. We did development. We win.”

In the valley there are Hindu, non-tribal Meitei communities, while the hills are inhabited largely by Christian Nagas and Kuki-Zomi communities.

The hill districts combine Churachandpur, Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong, Ukhrul, Kamjong, Noney, Kangpokpi and Pherzawl.

THE VALLEY
Mainly Imphal East, Imphal West, Thoubal, Bishnupur and three other districts make up the valley. Thoubal constituency, which is not far from Imphal town, is the seat of former Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh and there the public mood seems to be on his side.

In the Valley, the BJP and Congress clashed in 2017. To capture the local vibe, News18 ventured into the Ima market.

Ima Market is Asia’s largest women-run market, located in the heart of the capital city of Manipur, although the representation of women on the candidate lists of all political parties in the state is extremely low. But the Imas (ladies-mothers) are also busy discussing politics today. And men also join them.

Girija Thang, a trader, said: “This time I think there is a saffron wind. Here, people always vote for the party that is in power in the Center. The BJP brought peace, but we only talk about development, we don’t see anything.”

The men sitting there said that with the BJP in power blockades, bandhs were not happening. “Then we will go with the BJP.”

Local tea vendor Bhim Singh said, “Unemployment and underdevelopment are problems, but life and livelihoods are more important. We have that.”

It was clear that the vote this time will be more about peace than about development. The fact that people can make a living without resorting to frequent bandhs is important to them.

When you reach the Congress office on BT Road, it’s packed with local leaders, but the mood isn’t exactly upbeat. One told News18: “People want change. BJP did nothing, no jobs. We win.”

What Congress is offering the people, however, is unclear.

Political analysts point out that more than a dozen leaders left Congress after 2017. We’re betting on them.”

Most of the key candidates, including BJP Chief Minister N Biren Singh, former Congress Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh and former National People’s Party (NPP) Deputy Deputy Minister Yumnam Joykumar Singh, are all in lice from the valley.

In the city of Imphal, the billboards of some other parties are also visible this time. Apart from Congress, BJP and NPP, posters of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar can be seen in various parts of the city. Former cop Thounaojam Brinda is the candidate of his Janata Dal (United) party. She said, “You have to take a stand to save Manipur. I do and the JD(U) has a good chance.”

Bihar party can open their account here.

Although the flags of nuclear power plants are also visible, people do not discuss them openly.

The BJP therefore appears to have an advantage in the Valley, but silent voters could leave their mark on this election.

THE HILLS
As News18 headed towards Samulamlan village in Saikot constituency, there were people sitting in a small bazaar. A local resident, Akhon Menglei, said: “All the development is there, in the valley. We never had development. We don’t have multi-specialty hospitals and schools.”

There is an autonomous district council, but people in the hills want more power to ensure development, a teacher said. “Only a small percentage of the budget goes to the hills. Why this bias? This time we will respond as well.”

The feeling of being left out is palpable, but has been around for decades, analysts say. “All governments have given more importance to the valley. Biren Singh tried to start a program called “going to the hills”. This is nothing new,” they said.

When one goes to Churachandpur, Moirang, around Loktak, there is a feeling of discontent. The NPP, seen as the dark horse in these polls, seems to be more visible here. A Moirang trader said, “We tried Congress and BJP, see NPP or NPF now. They will think about our identity and our issues.”

Churachandpur saw a deadly ambush on November 13 as an Assam Rifles commander, his wife and son along with four other soldiers were killed after gunmen attacked their convoy with IEDs in Sekhan village of the Singhat division.

People here fear that this sign of insurgency will hurt the call to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a key election issue.

A teacher from Churachandpur district told News18: “We want to come out of the identity of the insurgency. It’s important to us.”

The BJP is confident that it will return to power with more than 40 of the total 60 assembly seats. Congress says there will be change. The NPP says it will be the ‘king’ this time and not the ‘kingmaker’.

Manipur’s verdict is not just about who gets the most numbers but also which alliance takes place after that.

Depending on the mood of the people, whoever wins should focus more on developing the hills, picking up the pace in the valley, ensuring peace and stability and pushing for the withdrawal of AFSPA.

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