Relevance of Congress victory in Manipur

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By Pradip Phanjoubam
This article first appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly in the magazine’s March 24, 2012 issue.

By and large there were two chief determinants that led to the landslide victory of the Congress in the elections to the 10th Manipur Legislative Assembly held on February 28 and the result of which was declared on March 6 together with those of four other states. An assessment of these two conditions should make the picture somewhat clear why the stunning victory of the Congress was expected though by its sheer magnitude, surprising.  One of these factors is an innate insecurity of the state’s electorate, an insecurity shared by most other small North Eastern states. The other is specific to Manipur and it has to do with the atrocious manner in which the parties in the opposition benches chose to commit political hara-kiri in the past ten years of uninterrupted Congress rule.

A convenient way to survey these factors would be a critical consideration of the dramatic entry of two new political parties into the state politics – that of the ruling party in West Bengal, All India Trinamool Congress, AITMC, and the ruling party in Nagaland, the Naga Peoples’ Front, NPF. They introduced new colours, moods and concerns to the electoral arena and indeed to the state as such, in different ways.

AITMC not only entered but opened accounts in a big way surprising many observers. The party fielded 47 candidates in the 60-member house. It also returned seven legislators to be behind only the Congress. Some frivolous explanations have been forwarded that electoral politics in Manipur and indeed the entire North Eastern states is not rooted deep enough therefore politician and political parties lack firm ideological leanings making them unscrupulous about changing hues quickly and whimsically. Instances of large scale defections in the political history of the region, in particular that of a BJP government in Arunachal Pradesh switching over to Congress overnight en masse when the BJP fell from grace at the Centre and a Congress government replaced it, are cited as alibi. It is true there has been a tendency of politics in these states to always lean towards the party that is in power at the Centre but this has a psychological explanation in which the subjects are not the only ones to blame. However before attempting this explanation, it must be noted that the answer of AITMC doing well as a first time entrant in Manipur is partly provided by this dominant psyche in the Northeast. AITMC, though not the ruling party at the Centre does control important levers of power there and this would have worked to its advantage.

This Centre-leaning politics in the region however is born out of conditioning rather than any independent whim. These switches of political loyalties are an indication of a deep and shared insecurity that unless they are on the right side of the Centre, they could end up abandoned if not harangued. A decade ago, when the 5th Pay Commission recommendations were out and pays of government employees were hiked, the Manipur government was headed by W. Nipamacha Singh of the Manipur State Congress Party, MSCP, a state party.  He did not last a full term but while he was there, he had a harrowing time, running from pillar to post to have funds released for as many as six months pending salary bills at a time for government employees. The state at the time was in untold turmoil.  It could be this was a co-incidence, but common man on the streets cannot be blamed for concluding that when the party in power in the state is not the same at the one at the Centre, bottlenecks develop in the channels of resource flow from the Centre to the state. Memories such these certainly would influence not just politicians but also electorate behaviour. The Congress victory as well as the success of the AITMC has much to thank this.

The dramatic success of the AITMC and Congress victory has another very significant reason. During the last Congress tenure in power with chief minister Okram Ibobi at the helm, almost all other political parties in the state by their own selfish and limited visions marginalised themselves. On most of the contentious issues these parties were deafeningly silent. Many of their legislators hung around and nagged ministers for favours. Still many of them queued up for Congress tickets when the elections were announced. At least one party, the Communist Party of India, CPI, remained a formal partner in the state government, even after the party broke alliance with the Congress at the Centre.

The opposition space in the Assembly thus came to be abdicated. This is the vacuum just right for a shrill and pushy party with a charismatic leader like the AITMC to enter. The party is now the second largest party in the state Assembly with seven MLAs, commendable by any standard for a new comer. Had the party entered the stage earlier, it probably would have done much better. All other parties, depleted in morale and commitment, ended up unable to set up candidates in even half the Assembly constituencies. Many including the CPI and Manipur People’s Party, MPP, drew blanks.

Desperately trying to remain relevant, four of these parties urgently formed a pre-poll alliance, People’s Democratic  Front, PDF, but this proved too little too late, despite the alliance attracting seven more parties at a later stage. The PDF partners also probably did not consider the thought that the Anti Defection Law had lowered the ceiling on cabinet size – 12 including the chief minister in the case of Manipur, and therefore a coalition of more than two parties is likely to become strained as the only proven incentive of such coalitions is ministerial berths. The PDF hence did not present a picture of stability capable of instilling confidence to the badly fractured and shaken electorate of Manipur. The ruling Congress on the other hand was strong, resourceful, and because of its strength, able to posture as a non partisan party, reaching out to the valley as well as the hills, and to all ethnic groups, setting up candidates in all the 60 constituencies, campaigning with the confidence of winners. It was also able to convey the message, unlike the other disunited and decimated parties, that it had the sinews to hold the beleaguered state together. It won seats from amongst all ethnic communities too.

Most observers speculated a hung house with the ruling Congress emerging the single largest party. The cynicism in the state being what it is, nobody thought a clear mandate was a possibility. But as this author suggested in an article in The Hindu (March 10 issue), in the clear mandate of the people is still evident the same cynicism. If the voters have stopped expecting a change for the better, they were desperate to have things not slip any further.

It is no exaggeration that the outgoing Congress headed government inspired only anger and indignation amongst a large section of the people. Rampant official corruption which has become a way of life, acute shortage of electricity for almost a decade leaving the ordinary consumer with two hours of electricity a day to manage with, water taps which have run dry with the government not lifting a finger to do anything about it, crumbling roads, the continued imposition of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, for the repeal of which Irom Sharmila has been on an epic hunger strike for nearly 12 years now, abject lack of governance which has passed on the law and order agenda into the hands of anybody or any organisation with some nuisance value, periodic prolonged blockades on the state’s lifelines with the government looking the other way even as prices of essential commodities rise to the sky, meant untold misery, uncertainty and insecurity for the common man. Yet, Manipur came out and voted resoundingly to bring back the government it hated. It would not be incorrect to say Manipur result therefore was not so much about Congress winning. It was more about non-Congress parties losing.

The entry of the second political party from outside the state, NPF, was watched with particularly keen interest in both Manipur and Nagaland. On its count, many had even dubbed the Manipur election as an election which had another referendum within. The first was the familiar contest for power in the Legislative Assembly under provisions of the Indian constitution, and the second, a reconfirmation of the support for Greater Nagaland, championed strongly by the faction of the militant organisation National Socialist Council of Nagaland (or Nagalim) NSCN(IM), headed by Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chishi Swu, amongst the Naga tribes in Manipur. The Nagaland chief minister, Niphiu Rio, was among the star campaigners for the NPF, travelling by helicopter to the four hill districts of Manipur, Tamenglong, Senapati, Ukhrul and Chandel, considered by the Nagas to be part of their ancestral homeland.  The party set up 12 candidates, three each in Tamenglong, Senapati and Ukhrul, two in Chandel and one in a constituency in Churachandpur district adjoining Tamenglong district, again considered part of the Greater Naga homeland. The Nagaland chief minister, either out of conviction or to capitalise on what he thought was the dominant mood in these constituencies, called for the integration of Naga areas into one administrative establishment.

Those in Manipur with a claimed stake in the territorial integrity of the state would have heaved a sigh of relief, for if indeed this was a referendum for Greater Nagaland, the NPF which represented the ideology did not fare too well. It returned four seats out of its 12, winning by extremely narrow margins in all of them. Significantly, in Ukhrul, the home district of NSCN(IM)’s top leader, Thuingaleng Muivah, of thee Assembly seats the NPF could wrest only one, and this too by a razor thin margin of 55 votes. The two others went to the Congress.

The NPF’s tally is two lower than what another local Naga organisation in Manipur campaigning on the same ideological plank, the United Naga Council, UNC, which set up as many candidates in the same constituencies returned five years ago. This is despite allegations of interference by militants prompting the election office to order repolling in 76 polling stations in these hill districts. While it would be too hasty to draw conclusions, regardless of whether there was such a referendum, this result would have bearings on the peace negotiation between the NSCN(IM) and the Government of India now nearly a decade and a half old. But the verdict on this imagined referendum is perhaps a vindication of an innate understanding amongst the different ethnic communities that regardless of politics and polemics, they are the ones who would by the compulsions of geography and economy, continue to be neighbours. The Sadar Hills tussle between the Kukis and the Nagas in which the demands of the Kukis for bifurcation of a separate Kuki dominated administrative district from the Naga dominated Senapati district which led to a prolonged impasse and blockade of the state is just one episode that would have informed all of this impossibility.

There is yet another interesting development which went largely unnoticed in the national media which very well could have also contributed to the final outcome of the elections especially in the valley districts. But even if it did not, it carried a loud message. Just at the time of the announcement of the election by the Election Commission of India, seven powerful militant organisations operating in the valley got together to form a coordinating committee which came to be known as CorCom, and banned the Congress party from contesting the election for “being the most brutal party on the people”. On a daily basis, grenade attacks were made on Congress candidates and workers to coerce them into submission. The Congress landslide victory against this backdrop is also almost a statement of the will of the people on the matter of militancy. There have been little open defiance but by the secret ballot, this is not the first time. Manipur’s recent electoral history has always demonstrated such silent defiance is a character of the place. There are indeed shared concerns between the people and the militants, which is why the latter survive, but it is not complete congruence, and the demarcating line was what was clearly drawn again in the recent election. This should be a valuable lesson for both the establishment and as well as those fighting the establishment.

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