While the national media is focused on the assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces his biggest electoral test since coming to power in 2014, the tiny state of Manipur in India’s northeast is gearing up for its most closely fought election in recent times.

The far-flung state with a population of less than 2.8 million (compare that with Uttar Pradesh, which has 220 million) sends just two lawmakers to India’s Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, but is strategically located as the gateway to South East Asia and is a traditional sporting powerhouse.

It is also an ethnically diverse, violence-ridden state with entrenched corruption and a weak administrative and judicial system. It has been in the news recently because of an ongoing blockade of two crucial highways in the hills by Naga tribes to protest the creation of new districts, which they say divides their ancestral land. This has led to a severe shortage of medicines, food and fuel in the valley, populated by the majority Meitei community.

Presiding over all this is Okram Ibobi Singh of the Congress who has held the chief minister’s post for the past 15 years. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants to change that.

The nationalist party, which had no real political footprint in the northeast in the past, started to focus on the region after coming to power at the centre in 2014. It formed a government in the northeast for the first time last year by winning in Assam. In the past few months it has captured power in Arunachal Pradesh and is also now part of the ruling coalition in Nagaland. Its next target: Manipur.

State BJP spokesman Nongthombam Biren Singh spoke to Reuters over the phone from state capital Imphal, and shares the BJP’s vision for the state, the issues voters care about and why he thinks time is up for Manipur’s longest-serving chief minister.

Reuters also spoke to Congress lawmaker and the party’s General Secretary (Administration) Rajkumar Imo Singh. Singh challenged the centre to direct the federal crime-fighting agency to probe corruption allegations against the Congress, while admitting that the Manipur government needs to work harder to create jobs in the state.

Manipur state BJP spokesman Nongthombam Biren Singh (L) and Manipur Congress party’s General Secretary (Administration) Rajkumar Imo Singh are shown in this combination picture. Handout photos.

Manipur state BJP spokesman Nongthombam Biren Singh (L) and Manipur Congress party’s General Secretary (Administration) Rajkumar Imo Singh are shown in this combination picture. Handout photos.

Excerpts from the two interviews:

NONGTHOMBAM BIREN SINGH, BJP spokesman, Manipur

Q: How many seats do you think the BJP will win?
A: I am confident that not less than 34 (out of 60 seats).

Q: Why should voters turn away from the Congress?
A: Number one, there’s the politics of the Congress. Sometimes the Naga card, sometimes they use the card of Kukis, sometimes they use Muslims, sometimes they use Meiteis. So people are fed up with this kind of ethnic/community line of politics. And that’s why Manipur is now almost divided.

Also, the government has become almost an individual, it’s the minister’s family in government. Also, governance is not there in the hill areas. Governance is there only in the valley, and even that not properly. So corruption, dictatorial attitude of the chief minister, and family-oriented.

Q: Can you elaborate on “family-oriented”?
A: The CM’s sons have been given tickets [candidates put up by political parties in an election]. One Mr. Kennedy at Khangabok and one Mr. Henry at Wangkhei -- his elder brother’s son. And almost all contract work and development project works are taken up through his relatives.

Q: But the chief minister has retained power for 15 years. Does that say something about his ability to hold on to power?
A: He used to play the communal card all the time. Even last year, the centre allowed [Naga militant leader] Muivah to enter Manipur. But the Congress in Imphal banned him. The relationship between the Nagas and the Meiteis is totally broken. People have started knowing that Ibobi is playing the very dangerous card of communal politics. This time also he tried the same, creating seven new districts, bifurcating the Naga-inhabited areas for Kukis. So that will not be tolerated by the people.

Q: Some observers say the creation of new districts and a government job recruitment drive just before the election will help the Congress?
A: No. Out of 100, those who had the capability to pay 10 lakh (1,000,000 rupees or $15,000), 20 lakhs, 50 lakhs, only these people got the jobs. But 90 percent are left out for not giving money. So 10 percent may be happy but 90 are against him. Everybody knows him as “10 percent” Ibobi.

Q: What are the main issues for voters?
A: The people are mainly concerned about the territorial integrity of Manipur, and corruption and human rights violations.

Q: What is the party’s agenda if it comes to power?
A: One person in every family will have a government job. Girls will have free education until graduation. A highway protection force will be formed, and health insurance schemes will be there for below-poverty-line groups.

Q: How will you come up with the money?
A: If we form the government, we will receive funds from the central government, the World Bank … Many funding [avenues] are there.

Q: What about the issue of corruption?
A: The issue will be rectified from the top, not from the bottom. If I come to power and I decide not to be corrupt, then no one will be. It depends on the leaders.

Q: Will you look into the alleged corruption by the previous government?
A: Definitely, we will take up corruption-related and human rights violation matters.

Q: In Nagaland, the BJP is in alliance with the ruling Naga People’s Front. Is there a plan to join forces with the party in Manipur?
A: No alliance will be done. We are not aligning with any party.

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RAJKUMAR IMO SINGH, Congress lawmaker, Manipur

Q: The BJP says it will take power from the Congress this time.
A: Our party has been in power for 15 years. Last election also, people were skeptical that we will not come back to power. But we got 42 seats out of 60. This time also we will be getting the majority.

Q: What are the main issues in this election?
A: For us as the Congress, the party in power, this government has given development all-round. For example, people used to get six to seven hours of electricity in a day. Today, we are able to provide almost 24-hour electricity. Similarly, we have been able to develop lots of infrastructure projects. Some of them have been completed, some still not completed. Imphal city looks like a capital city, unlike what it was before. So the development plank will be continuing.

Q: The BJP says people must pay bribes to get the few government jobs available in the state.
A: When Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to Imphal when he was the prime ministerial candidate, he had announced to the people in a public rally that our [Congress] government is corrupt and our CM is corrupt and, if voted to power, he will have him charge-sheeted and all the corruption cases will be looked into by various central forces. I mean, CBI is in their hands. The BJP, rather than speaking, should act. If they believe such corruption cases are there, then they should come forward.

Q: The BJP spokesman also told me that most government contracts in the state are given to the chief minister’s relatives or relatives of other ministers.
A: Many of the close people of a particular leader may be involved. But mostly, I feel that it’s being distributed equally to all the general people, in the sense, workers - the general people of the particular constituency. What I would say if it’s an allegation, then you know they should come forward and point their finger at a particular person. But I can’t just say generally about all the 60 [lawmakers in the state assembly].

Q: How big a threat does the BJP pose for the Congress?
A: The Congress has always been there, but opposition parties have kept coming and going. So we don’t see them as a long-term force. Once the BJP leaves power in Delhi, the BJP will not be here in Manipur.

Q: Opposition parties are saying the Congress government does not want to lift the economic blockade on purpose. What do you say to that?
A: First of all, national highways fall under the central government. We send our forces and try and get the products which are supposed to come in to our state. We have been doing that. We cannot say “let’s finish off the blockade”. We have already been telling them: “Relax the bandh, relax the blockade and we can talk.” It’s not happening. So we’ve asked the central government to come in. The central government has come in now, but they are not able to say anything or direct the UNC [United Naga Council, the organisation spearheading the blockade] to lift the blockade.

The UNC is an offshoot organisation of the NSCN (IM) [separatist group National Socialist Council of Nagaland - Isak-Muivah]. That everybody knows. NSCN (IM) is in an agreement with the central government, the BJP government. So the BJP government is in direct talks with the NSCN (IM) and they keep on saying whenever they come here, the speeches made by leaders - “give us power, within two days we will lift the blockade.” That means somewhere it is their idea not to lift the blockade.

We’ve also written a letter [to the centre] to put the UNC in the unlawful category status. Have they done that? They have not. So all the onus is on them. What can the state government do? It cannot declare them unlawful because it is not the prerogative of the state government. It is the prerogative of the central government.

FILE PHOTO: Voters stand in a queue outside a polling station at Ukhrul, Manipur February 8, 2007. REUTERS/Stringer/Files

FILE PHOTO: Voters stand in a queue outside a polling station at Ukhrul, Manipur February 8, 2007. REUTERS/Stringer/Files

Q: The centre says it is providing central security forces for the state to use?
A: That is what is happening right now. With the security forces, we are getting the products inside.

Q: Another allegation is that seven new districts were created deliberately just ahead of the election so that the Congress will gain electorally.
A: Demand has been there for many years, more than a decade. Anybody can question the timing of any administrative action. They will question tomorrow also, or three months back, six months back, or during the time of a Lok Sabha election … so when does the government work then?

Q: Coming back to the question on development - there are 700,000 educated youth registered as unemployed in a state of just under 2.8 million. And thousands of young people from the state work in the business process outsourcing and retail sector in other states. But no political party has come out with plans to create jobs or attract private companies and investment …
A: Very true. The government needs to be more proactive regarding this. I also completely agree. I’m first an MLA [state legislator] myself so I cannot comment on what happened earlier. But I believe that we need to be more proactive and call upon more private companies to come here and help us build the most important … human index, human resource, where people can get employment also. We also need to work hard, much more.

Q: What is the biggest challenge in governing a state like Manipur?
A: We have all castes, we have all communities. Everywhere from every place, people are here. We have the Hindus who are Meiteis, the Kukis and Nagas who are Christians, we have Muslims here. And we have non-Manipuris -- people from Bihar, Bengal, Rajasthan -- who are all residing here. So it is indeed complex, and that is why it is a problem for the government to take strict, punitive or preventive action immediately. Sometimes it takes time in government decisions … It’s difficult as it affects one particular community.

Reporting by David Lalmalsawma; Editing by Robert MacMillan and Tony Tharakan