Ibobi Singh attempted damage control by carving out 7 Manipur districts for "administrative convenience".
Activist Irom Sharmila's challenge to Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh of the Congress in his Thoubal constituency, is the most watched contest in tomorrow's second and last round of assembly elections in Manipur. But it is the BJP that has the man who has ruled the state for the last 15 years worried.
In the crucial second phase, 22 constituencies will vote. Ten of these are in Thoubal district in the valley and considered Chief Minister Ibobi Singh's stronghold. The rest are in the tribal-dominated hills. Of these 22 seats, the Congress had won 14 and two other MLAs later joined it. Effectively, the ruling party is fighting to retain 16 seats tomorrow.
The BJP, which hopes to win its third state in the northeast after Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, did not win a single seat five years ago in the 60-member Manipur assembly. But most of the Congress' top leaders from the hill areas have switched to the BJP in the last six months. Most of them are from the Kuki tribe, traditionally a Congress support base.
Ibobi Singh has attempted damage control in the last few months by carving out seven new districts for "administrative convenience," a decision that has made the Kukis happy. But the Nagas are upset. The issue has polarised voters like never before, setting plains against hills and tribe against tribe.
While it is not clear whether the Congress has salvaged support among the Kukis, the BJP may be unable to tap into the Naga anger. Since the district split in December last year, the BJP has made inroads in the hills, but the Naga People's Front or NPF, a BJP ally at the centre and in Nagaland, is contesting separately in Manipur.
The NPF, which has opposed the creation of the seven districts, debuted in the last assembly elections winning four seats out of the 12 it contested - all in the hills. It is contesting 15 seats this time.
A straight BJP versus NPF contest is expected in four Naga-majority districts -- Tamenlong, Chandel, Ukhrul and Senapati, which could benefit the Congress. The other seats have a large population of Kukis, and these are being watched closely for how they vote.
Two Congress legislators moved to the BJP after they were "banned" from their constituencies in the Kuki belt in 2015 following violence over three bills passed by Ibobi Singh's government that were seen as "anti-tribal". Nine people had died in violent protests, six of them in police firing.
The BJP is also eyeing the 10 seats in Thoubal district, reaching out to the minority voters, the Manipuri Muslims or Meitei Pangals. They are about 10 per cent of the state's 19 lakh voters and could influence at least six Thoubal constituencies.
Activist Irom Sharmila, who broke a 16-year hunger strike against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act last year, has since launched the 'Peoples' Resurgence and Justice Alliance' and is contesting three seats in Manipur.
The first round of voting in Manipur last Saturday for 38 seats saw a record 86.5 per cent turnout. The BJP says the high turnout is a vote for change. The Congress claims it has swept Manipur every time there has been record voting.
Votes will be counted on Saturday, March 11.