Amidst a shadow cast by recent terror strikes, Manipur, the 'jewel of the Northeast' is headed for elections to its 60-member state assembly, with the Congress attempting to wrest back power from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition, which seems to be falling apart with smaller coalition partners deciding to put up candidates against the saffron party.
Besides law and order, the long standing demand for junking Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, economic woes of the land-locked state which has hardly any industries, are expected to figure high on the agenda of the unfolding electoral battle between the two main parties with smaller local parties such as National People's Party and the Naga People's Front chipping in with their own demands.
The BJP, which managed to form a government in 2017 despite having just 21 seats compared to Congress's 28 by joining hands with two local parties -- NPP and NPF, says it is looking to win two-thirds of the seats in the elections to be held in two phases on February 27 and March 3.
Ch Chidananda, vice president, Manipur Pradesh BJP, told PTI that his party's aim 'is to get more than 40 seats in 60-member house', emphasising for clarity 'that is (a) BJP government'.
Indicative of the fissures within the coalition, Chidananda frankly admitted, "In the hill areas of the state (dominated by Naga tribes), the main fight will be between BJP and Naga People's Front (current coalition partner of the BJP)."
Despite differences with partners, both of whom have said they would field candidates against BJP, the saffron party leader said there are about 160 party ticket claimants 'including 31 MLAs or ex-MLAs of BJP' seeking nominations for 60 seats in Manipur state assembly, indicative of the popularity of his party.
Analysts say dissensions within the BJP and unhappiness among the NPP and NPF partners over its harping on the Hindutva card has brought about a distance between the alliance partners and this may affect the saffron party's chances at the hustings.
However, Pradip Phanjoubam, Manipur-based author and editor and an expert on Northeast said 'though there are no pre-poll alliances… we may witness post-poll alliances in case they are needed to form a government'.
The 'grand old party', Congress, too is beset with problems with several of its MLAs deserting the party for the ruling BJP in recent months.
Five Congress legislators including the former state Congress unit chief Govindas Konthoujam joined the BJP in August last year.
Another sitting Congress legislator Chaltonlien Amo joined BJP on Sunday. Amo's defection to the saffron fold comes in less than a week after his colleague D Korungthang left the party to join NPF.
However, N Loken Singh MLA, president Manipur Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) is confident the Congress will stage a come-back.
Criticising the present BJP-led coalition government in Manipur for 'corruption and financial scandal', Singh told PTI 'prices of essential commodities are sky high, so the people of Manipur are fed up of BJP-led governments in the center as well as in Manipur'.
Singh asserted the Congress will elect it's candidate for the chief minister's post at a meeting of the Congress Legislature party after the election, 'but as on today we have CLP leader O Ibobi Singh (three-terms chief minister of the state)'.
He claimed the mood of the people is changing as 'the number of unemployed youth is increasing day by day ... Living conditions of poor people worsening. (While) BJP leaders are doing business by selling banks, airports, railway stations to the rich'.
Manipur's literacy rate according to the last census was nearly 80 per cent, quite higher than the national average with male literacy stands at 86.49 per cent.
However, despite the high literacy rate, Manipur, as compared to the rest of the country, remains a socioeconomically backward state with unemployment at the last count in 2017-18 at 11.6 per cent.
Youth unemployment in the 15-24 age group stood at a staggering 44.4 per cent according to the Economic Survey of Manipur 2020-21.
Withdrawing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which had seen numerous agitations in the state including the famous case of the country's longest fast for any cause, that by Manipur's Irom Sharmila, remains an important issue and may again figure politically given the killing of 14 civilians in firing by army personnel in neighboring Nagaland recently.
However, Phanjoubam said, "Because the demand has been around for long, despite its importance, it has become 'normalised'."
For the ruling coalition, the work that the government has done on the infrastructural front in the state, encouraged by what its leaders describe as 'double engine government' (governments at both the Center and the state), may help overcome anti-incumbency to a great degree.
Days ahead of the announcement of elections on Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Imphal and inaugurated 13 projects worth around Rs 1,850 crore besides laying the foundation stone of nine projects worth another Rs 2,950 crore.
Nevertheless, the militancy by numerous groups still remains a bug-bear in the politics of the state.
A spike in attacks like the November ambush of an Assam Rifles Colonel and his family could turn law and order into the biggest issue overshadowing development work.