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3 March 2017 Editorial


3 MARCH 2017 

The stakes in Manipur

Manipur will vote in 38 of its 60 Assembly constituencies on 4 March 2017 in the first of two phases. This election is shaping up into something new for Manipur’s polity, a direct contest between two national parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Congress is seeking to defend its 15-year record in power, while the BJP fancies its chances in a State that has generally voted favourably for the party ruling at the Centre. The four-month-long blockade by the United Naga Council of highways leading up to the valley has dominated the discourse in the run-up to the elections. The Manipur elections are important for both national parties. The Congress is seeking to retain its hold as the only party that has electoral support across various ethnic and geographic regions in the State, while the BJP is keen to get power in another northeastern State, after its victory last year in Assam. A contest between the Congress and the BJP in Manipur is welcome, as both parties do not represent any specific ethnic groups, unlike other parties in the fray in previous elections. But the BJP lacks a grassroots base in Manipur and largely comprises leaders who have defected from the Congress. This has resulted in a political campaign largely made up of accusations and counteraccusations of corruption, besides the blame game on the ongoing blockade.

The decision in early December 2016 by the Okram Ibobi Singh government to notify the formation of seven new districts, creating 16 districts in the State, was momentous. It allowed the Congress to seek support from the hill areas for this decision, as the new districts in the hills made for better administrative access in areas far from the valley. However, it resulted in the intensification of the blockade sponsored by the UNC, severely hitting normal life in Manipur. The persistence of the blockade has led to some degree of disaffection owing to the inability of the Congress government to bring it to an end, even if the government’s defence that any punitive measures against the UNC would have led to violence cannot be summarily dismissed. The Congress blames the Centre for not prevailing upon the UNC and other Naga groups to end the blockade, while the BJP blames the Congress for precipitating the crisis. In a State where insurgent groups remain active and that is still dependent on Central transfer of resources to shore up its economy, the electorate would have welcomed a genuine discourse on such issues in the run-up to the elections. Sadly, this did not happen.


Conciliatory, sketchy

President Donald Trump’s address to the joint session of Congress was unusual insofar as he adopted a distinctly less combative tone on certain issues, and refrained from his melodramatic oratorical strategy of painting America as a nation facing a dark future in a dangerous world. Most striking in terms of the change in his tenor were his remarks on immigration. Through most of his election campaign, he frequently promised to detain and deport “illegal aliens” and build a wall along the Mexican border to keep “rapists” and drug dealers out. While the Department of Homeland Security has indeed carried out raids against undocumented immigrants in a number of major American cities over the past few weeks, Mr. Trump on 28 February 2017 expressed his willingness to consider a merit-based system, rather than relying on lower-skilled immigrants, which could be achieved through “real and positive immigration reform”. Yet Mr. Trump appeared to blunt the positive impact of this long-awaited softening in his rhetoric on immigration when he announced a proposal to create an office to serve ‘Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement’, apparently a special agency with a mandate to focus on tackling crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. As before, the fact that multiple studies of the demographics of crime suggest that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans has not deterred him from making such xenophobic proposals.

Mr. Trump is also likely to have been alluding to Indian fiscal policies when he spoke of a country that taxed U.S.-made Harley-Davidson motorcycles at a 100% rate. Even though subsequent reports pointed out that the sales of the motorcycle company have grown at a brisk pace of 30% over the past two years in India despite such taxation, it is Mr. Trump’s penchant for flirting with the idea of introducing protectionist measures in U.S. trade policy that is causing alarm in India and elsewhere. It is hard to distinguish how much of Mr. Trump’s attack on the global trade system, which he blames for taking away Americans’ jobs, is bluster, and how much portends actual policy change. For example, among the multiple companies that he named in his speech as firms promising to invest in production lines on U.S. soil since November’s election, fact-checkers discovered that many had already made plans to do so during his predecessor’s time in office. This apparent lack of interest in factual accuracy and specificity on details seemed to echo through other parts of Mr. Trump’s speech — for example, in his glossing over precisely what “historic tax reform” his administration would introduce to enable U.S. companies to be competitive the world over. While many Americans may be willing to tolerate presidential strategies of purposeful equivocation, they are probably hoping that, at the very least, Mr. Trump’s speech may be an inflection point in his evolution toward a more conciliatory ethos.

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