Even as the BJP is leaving no stone unturned to settle the Naga issue in Narendra Modi's first term as the prime minister, the contentious issue is playing out in the current assembly elections in Manipur which goes to polls on March 4 and 8.
The four-month long economic blockade has become a major election issue and was also the cause of the recent political crisis in Nagaland, which saw a change of regime when T.R. Zeliang of the Naga People's Front had to step down as the chief minister.
The Naga issue has completely polarised the Hill against the Valley in Manipur. Subsequent to the United Naga Council's (UNC) call for blockade in November, causing much hardship to the public, civil organisations in the Valley have given a counter blockade call. The All Manipur Students Union (AMSU) had recently launched an agitation against Naga groups. It is now learnt that the UNC has directed people to vote for the NPF candidates.
Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi's assurance at an election rally in Imphal recently that Manipur's interests will not be compromised by the Naga deal and the credibility he enjoys in the State, people of the Valley are not willing to accept his verbal assurance. "Why have a hidden (framework) agreement at all if it's going to benefit everyone? Make it public and give it in writing," AMSU leader Anil Thongbam has reportedly said. The three-term Congress Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh termed the framework a "dormant volcano."
While the Congress has been able to capitalise on the fears among Meiteis on the Naga deal, it is facing a backlash in the Naga dominated areas of the State. In an assembly of 60 seats, the hills have 20 seats and the Valley 40.
But the 40 seats in the Valley is also not a cakewalk for Ibobi, who is a Meitei. Many Nagas from the Hill have settled down in the Valley and proper colonies have come up such as Nagaram, Tangkhul avenue, etc.
Thuingaleng Muivah (82), the general secretary of the NSCN(IM), which is spearheading the Naga issue, is a Tangkhul Naga. Others like Paites and Kukis have also settled down in the Valley and small colonies have sprung up such as the Paite Vang, New Lambulane and Old Lambulane.
Certain facts underline the undercurrent of gradual shift from the Congress to the BJP in the state. A former minister in the Ibobi Singh government, Phungzathang Tonsing, a Paite and who was named as the Congress candidate from Churachandpur constituency, switched loyalty at the last moment from the Congress to late PA Sangma's National Peoples' Party, an ally of the BJP at the Centre.
Although, Kukis are divided, there is a feeling that many Kukis are apparently gradually moving towards the BJP. Kuki underground organisations such as the United Peoples' Front (UPF) and the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) are in tripartite talks with the Centre and the state, and they hope that the current government at the Centre will resolve their long standing demand for land and political issues. A Kuki MLA, Nemcha Kipgen, recently shifted from the Congress to the BJP.
The contentious Naga issue was also the cause of recent political crisis in Nagaland. While the cause was the Naga issue, the effect of the crisis was the reservation issue. Former three-time chief minister Neiphiu Rio, who is now an MP, was aiming to return to Nagaland at the helm. BJP honchos in the capital were also keen that Rio takes charge as the chief minister in a smooth transfer of power from Zeliang. But it didn’t happen.
A source close to the power corridors at the Centre revealed that a deal had been struck three-four days prior to Zeliang's resignation on February 19. Among others present in the meeting included Zeliang, Rio and Ram Madhav. Rio, who in Delhi's perspective is the 'tallest' political leader in Nagaland, has apparently been working on the Naga issue away from the public eye since 2014. BJP strategists were keen on his return because they thought it would be easy for the Centre to resolve the Naga issue under his chief ministership.
But when the crucial time came, Zeliang turned his back and a day before his resignation all MLAs huddled in a resort in Kaziranga National Park. As the drama unfolded, 81-year-old ShÜrhozelie Liezietsu became the 17th chief minister of the state. Rio felt he was stabbed in the back and couldn’t do much. Nobody knows why Zeliang went back on his word but many feel Zeliang is only a pawn in the larger Naga issue.
Zeliang has been seen as an alternative power centre to Rio. In 2014, there was a revolt against Rio after he served the state for 11 years. Within the NPF it was decided that Rio should relinquish the chief ministership and contest 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Subsequently Zeliang became the chief minister. In May 2016, the NPF suspended Rio for alleged 'anti-party' activities.