The two assembly constituencies, 41 Chandel and 42 Tengnoupal, are the most keenly contested seats between the Nagas and the Kukis in Manipur. As several Naga candidates vie for the Naga People’s Front (NPF) party ticket to contest in 41 and 42 assembly constituencies in the upcoming state elections in Manipur, certain markers of voting behaviour in undivided Chandel should be considered in order to choose the right candidates for getting positive results. The Naga voters in these constituencies have demonstrated different voting behaviours in the last two state elections.
State Election, 2012
In 2012 the Naga People’s Front contested the Manipur assembly elections from undivided Chandel for the first time. Against great odds, the NPF candidate for 41 Chandel, Seltun Victor Nunghlung, a fresh face in electoral politics and the unlikeliest of the lot, secured 13,324 votes and won by a small margin of 166 votes over second-place Thangkholun Haokip of the Indian National Congress (INC).
In 42 Tengnoupal, the story is a little different. Unlike in 41 Chandel, W. Morung Makunga and D. Korungthang have been the two most consistent and visible Naga representatives. Barring the brief interlude in 2000, wherein a candidate from the Kuki group won but lost to Korungthang in the mid-term polls in 2002, the two veterans have exclusively changed seats to represent 42 Tengnoupal since 1990. In 2012, the NPF’s main rival in 42 Tengnoupal was the ex-MLA, D. Korungthang, of the INC. The NPF candidate, Kh. David Charanga, who was contesting for the first time like Victor Nunghlung in 41 Chandel, secured only 6,807 votes and lost to Korungthang, who secured 13,434 votes.
State Election, 2017
In the 2017 assembly elections in Manipur, NPF failed to repeat its 2012 success in 41 Chandel. The reason for the loss is multifactorial. But the fundamental one is the NPF leadership not awarding the party ticket to the candidate that the Naga voters openly endorsed, Tongsin Warngam. Warngam went on to contest as an independent candidate and secured a competitive 12,091 votes and was placed second after the winner, Letpao Haokip of the National People’s Party (NPP), who secured 14,216 votes. The NPF candidate, Victor Nunghlung (1,574 votes), the People’s Democratic Alliance (PDA) candidate, Behring Bungdon (3,044 votes), and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate, Olish Shilshi (9,842 votes), wastefully split Naga votes and denied Warngam a possible win.
In 42 Tengnoupal AC, the real contest was between the Congress and the BJP candidates, with the Congress candidate, Korungthang, securing 16,940 votes and finishing first. The NPF candidate, K. Armstrong Charanga, another first timer in electoral politics, fared relatively well and was placed third with 11,015 votes.
It is important to note that the popularity of the Congress party in the state had taken a severe blow by 2017. But it was business as usual for Korungthang in 42 Tengnoupal. The fact that he was part of the Congress government that bifurcated Chandel into two districts, and that he also practically ceded control of the new Tengnoupal district to the Kukis (headquarters), did not affect his electoral chances for the worse. This is a strange behaviour from the Naga voters in 42 Tengnoupal, given how these elections are generally fought along ethnic lines. However, Korungthang’s move to join NPF recently for the state elections in 2022 (Impact Tv interview of 05.01.2022) is evidence of a serious foothold NPF has gained at the grassroots level since 2017 in 42 Tengnoupal.
How should NPF choose for 41 and 42 ACs?
The NPF leadership will do well to note the asymmetrical responses of the Naga voters to the NPF in 41 and 42 ACs in the last two state elections. The voters share a contiguous geo-political and cultural space in Chandel, but their voting behaviours are markedly different. It is also noteworthy that even though the Nagas had become disillusioned with the Congress party in the state (anti-Naga policies and rhetoric, district creation, etc.), D. Korungthang (INC) still exercised monopoly in electoral politics in 42 Tengnoupal. The electoral behaviour of the Nagas in 42 Tengnoupal is strongly suggestive of a voting norm wherein the particularities of a Maring candidate take precedence over the party.
In 42 Tengnoupal AC, the Naga voters have to choose between the majority Maring Naga candidates. So, the party becomes somewhat unimportant relative to the personality, character, and general standing in society of a candidate. This explains why the first-time NPF candidates lost to Korungthang in 2012 and 2017 despite the United Naga Council’s stern castigation of the “communal government” of Manipur under the Congress in 2010. So, individual qualities and political pedigree of the candidate should be key parameters in selection for 42 Tengnoupal AC. NPF should capitalise on the fact that the Naga voters in 42 Tengnoupal are receptive to the party more than ever.
For 41 Chandel AC, the presence of numerous Naga tribes with no one tribe able to win the seat on its own makes selection of a suitable candidate complicated. However, there are two major points to note when mixing the formula for winning in 41 Chandel: A political goal of common interest to the Naga tribes is crucial for mobilising and uniting the Naga voters first – political gimmicks will not do. Secondly, no incumbent Naga MLA has been able to retain his seat in 41 Chandel AC since 1974. So, clearly there is less regard among the Chandel public in voting back to power sitting MLAs/ex-MLAs if a viable option is available. Conversely, there is a unique tendency to vote for fresh faces (Victor Nunghlung in 2012, Warngam Tongsin in 2017, etc.) in 41 Chandel, regardless of their financial position. These are key factors that I think must be seriously considered when awarding NPF ticket for 41 Chandel. It is likely that 41 Chandel will witness a close three-way contest between the NPF, BJP (Naga candidates) and Janata Dal (U) (Kuki candidate).
It is being discussed in Chandel that politicians who have not worked or voted for the NPF in the past are being considered to represent the party in 41 and 42 ACs. Such a development, in my opinion, is both unwise and unnecessary, given that there are able candidates with proven NPF pedigree vying to represent the party in these constituencies. I honestly think that these intending candidates with proven track record of working for the NPF stand a great chance of winning if the right support from the party and other sympathisers can be extended. Entertaining the pleas of political opportunists at this point has created the perception that NPF has lapsed into the practice of political elitism like most other parties. If this dalliance with political opportunists translates into ticket allotment, it is likely to alienate party workers at the grassroots level. NPF leadership should note that without quality work at the grassroots level, the party will not only lose its base in the people, but its claim of being a people’s party will no longer be believable.
Shelmi Sankhil is Assistant professor, School of Letters, Ambedkar University Delhi. He is also the author of Flame on a Hill: A Collection of Stories published in 2020. Views are personal.