By Dr. Malem Ningthouja
The 10th Assembly Election in Manipur (India) was conducted on 28 January followed by re-poll in 34 polling stations on 4 February and in 67 polling stations on 4 and 5 March. It was conducted under the guard of the reported additional 350 companies of paramilitary forces comprising the CRPF, BSF, ITBP, SSB, Assam Rifles, Orissa Police, RPF, Bihar police, Andhra Pradesh Police, Mizoram Police, Tripura Police, Jharkhand Police, and CISF, i.e., similar to technical democratic exercise mechanically held once in five years under a siege situation.
Among seventeen political parties and independent that had fielded 279 candidates (fifteen women) to contest for 60 assembly seats, Indian National Congress much above expectations had achieved a ‘magic’ victory by securing 42 seats. It had entered into a recorded 14th term to form government (at times leading coalition governments) since 1967, and O. Ibobi had sworn in as Chief Minister of Manipur for the 3rd consecutive term. In order to neutralize power struggle within the party, an arrangement resembling Colonial Democracy parallel to Morley- Minto Reforms 1909, Montague Chelmsford Reforms 1919 and Communal Award 1932 has been implemented by distributing certain ministerial portfolios along communal lines, e.g., minority (sic Manipuri Muslims), Kuki, and Naga. The INTC is leading the opposition flank.
Background of Victory
The magic victory of INC came off despite multiple challenges such as: anti-congress alliance christened as People`s Democratic Front constituted by MPP, NCP, JD (U), RJD and CPI (M); anti-congress alliance between MPP and BJP, and campaign by other parties; ban imposed on INC by Co-ordination Committee (CorCom) of seven underground militant parties; and Naga People’s Front campaign against INC.
There were various interplaying factors that contributed to the INC victory. Firstly, a large section of voters were mesmerised by an illusion that Central grants was the only option for economic survival. The assumption was that the Central government and Manipur were bound by paternalistic relationship; which articulated reciprocity between citizens (sic children) and reward by the Central government (sic father) in the form of grants. Such dependent psychology was favourable to INC that enjoyed power at the Centre.
Secondly, on the eve of election INC had enjoyed ruling power for two consecutive, i.e., the period of finance investment in Look East Policy, construction of dams, roadways, office buildings, market complex, etc. Normally 8 to 15 % out of the total amount of project fund was misappropriated by commission network wherein the political barons, construction companies, bureaucrats, contractors and project dealers were major stakeholders. In such situation INC candidates had an upper hand in the electoral politics to retain legislative cum economic power.
Thirdly, opposition parties that had refrained from ideological fight or offering prospective vision were weak. People suspect that they were easily bribed to remain mute spectator to the moribund rulers both in the assembly and outside. There were defections of important leaders to INC during election time. In the longue durée the opposition parties, therefore, lacked credibility, charismatic leaders, and public support. Most of them were badly defeated.
Fourthly, in ten years tenure as CM, Ibobi had expanded mass base in his Assembly Constituency through his agents in construction works, job recruitment, and alliance with various organisations. His relatives, including his wife, carried out electoral politics in Thoubal and Imphal Districts. In the last election he allegedly supported some non-INC candidates to defeat rival congressmen so as to retain uncontested power position in the Assembly. He enjoyed the trust of INC leader Sonia Gandhi. His achievement contributed in a big way to the overall victory of INC.
Beyond the Technical Victory
Although the election was successfully conducted, there were phenomena that contested the very notion of free and fare election. Firstly, there was official discrepancy on matters relating to assessment of the property of candidates. For instance, one could hardly believe that “Chief Minister O Ibobi Singh, who is eyeing a hat-trick in the upcoming election to the 10th Manipur Legislative Assembly as a candidate … has entered the fray with just Rs 50,000 in hand.” The accountability of the procedure of vigilance, seriousness of the modus operandi and sincerity of the vigilance officials were being questioned.
Secondly, evasive tactics to conceal from official surveillance was very common. Election campaigns, feasts and drinks, distribution of ‘vote money’ and etc. that involved huge money and muscle power were carried out during nights to avoid detection. In some instances deliberately withheld old age pension books or construction works were released on the eve of the election to attract the beneficiaries to vote in favour of a particular candidate. On the polling day purchasing of what was termed ‘flying vote’ at the price normally fixed above 2000 Rs per vote was very common.
Thirdly, gun culture flourished. No follow up action was ever heard about the reported 227 FIRs registered by police against defaulters who had failed to deposit licensed guns. Both licensed guns and illegal arms were widely used during election campaigns without any restrictions. On the other hand several rival political workers were falsely implicated on the charges of having connection with ‘outlawed’ militant organisations. Or many were forced upon to support a candidate on the pretext of protection from supposedly false implication by police. Gun and money power were interplaying.
Fourthly, vandalism, booth capturing, rigging, double enrolment, impersonation, casting of vote against the names of deceased persons, out-station voters, etc were reported. Anomalies and discrepancies on the part of polling officials had created obstacles while maintaining transparency and accountability. Photographs of several thousand voters could not be taken due to darkness inside polling booths and lack of expertise on the part of the polling officials to handle cameras. Photo comparison had detected mismatch of the photograph of several voters and the photos on the electoral list against their names. In addition to this, cases of poor quality of photographs taken and a single person pressing the button of EVM several times had come to light. Election related violence occurred despite heavy deployment of government forces.
Assessing Communal Politics
Several analysts were serious into thinking if the entry of NPF into electoral politics in Manipur would lead to exasperation of community co-existence and polarisation. The NPF, which had published the agenda to unite Naga communities under an administrative region, had opposed proposed creation of Sadar Hills District on the ground that it was Kuki community agenda, termed the ruling SPF government as communal representing the interest of Meetei community, and articulated that Naga and other communities must live under different administrative arrangements. However, the Nagas were not united on the electoral politics. Despite intensive campaign and alleged NSCN-IM involvement NPF could win only four seats in the sixteen ACs in the Naga dominated areas.
Contradictory to the presumption that NPF electoral politics would disintegrate Manipur, community based political party innings in electoral politics had been a long experience in Manipur. In 1974 Manipur Hills Union won twelve seats in 16 ACs and Kuki National Assembly won two seats in six ACs. MHU formed UDF government. In 1980 KNA contested election in seven ACs and won two seats. In 1984 KNA contested election in four ACs and won one seat. In 1990 KNA contested election in eight ACs and won two seats. A new party christened as Manipur Hill Peoples Council contested election in ten ACs but lost completely. In 1995 KNA and MHPC lost completely respectively in six and one ACs. KNA lost completely again in 2000. In 2002 and 2007 a new party christened as Naga National Party contested election in five and one ACs but lost completely.
NPF may come and go. Moreover, the question of territorial integrity or disintegration is an open issue which had been interplaying with various other important issues for quite long time. There is the need for common platform to develop mutual understanding, discussion and debates to adopt commonly acceptable policies. The State assembly had to be seen as an important platform. NPF or any organised party must be encouraged to enter into it. It would make electoral democracy meaningful as well.
Severe Blows to Stakeholders
INC victory was a severe blow to several organised bodies that had lobbied against INC on several burning issues viz., economic crisis, unemployment, job security, forced labour by the State, territorial integrity, immigration, destructive capitalist projects, state terrorism and AFSPA, Protected Area Permit, Inner Line Permit, electricity and water, highway protection, corruption and many others. Among the insurgent organisations the CorCom was badly defeated.
CorCom’s anti-INC stand had raised many questions:
1. CorCom was formed probably in July 2011 as a collective platform of seven underground organisations. Many suspected a direct or indirect collusion of INC with CorCom. Was the target against INC a tactical political bargaining based on the presumption that INC would definitely come to power? Was it a staged managed tactics aimed at reducing election expenditure of INC on the one hand and on the other hand to win public sympathy for congress?
2. The ban on INC suggested for indirect support to other parties, which further suggested CorCom’s electoral politics despite denial of playing a role. In that sense wasn’t United National Liberation Front’s critical remark on the election and Revolutionary People’s Front’s appeal to refrain from ensuring election appeared self-contradictory and dubious political principles?
3. There were rumours about congress candidates attempting monetary negotiation with CorCom. Apparently the negotiation seemed to have failed due to either internal differences within CorCom or inability to arrive at mutually acceptable term between INC and CorCom. However, since the target of attacks appeared to be selective, the probability of negotiation at the individual capacity could not be ruled out. People suspected bribery and favouritism by CorCom.
4. The list of 2670 congress workers and selective militant attack had created fear and hatred among INC workers. Comparative silence maintained by ‘mass fronts’ on CorCom’s bomb attacks and killing eroded legitimacy of the former and derailed neutrality / consistency in the collective struggle for civil liberties. The magic victory of INC, therefore, created an apparent severe blow to CorCom. The risk taken up by CorCom was proven suicidal and self-defeating in the long run.
During election larger sections of the voters were primarily motivated by immediate material agenda in terms of ‘vote money’ or donation and personal allegiance to candidate rather than political principle of any party. Their subjective condition might have been shaped by bourgeoisie political consciousness and other reactionary and sectarian types. Several relations shivered at various levels in the neighbourhoods, among denizens of the same locality, co-existing communities, and collectives continues to be strained.
However promises made during election campaigns and agenda mentioned in all the manifestoes, and issues raised by local clubs, sectoral workers, and civil society organisations are still relevant to the people. Most of the families are confronting individual hardships against systematic decline of economic livelihood, terrorism, and suspension of democratic rights. People’s expectations and aspirations for a better change are continuously growing. Will the elected representatives continue to act upon the cracks and divisions to further divide opinion among the common people and weaken the civil democratic forces? Will the opposition parties fight tooth and nail for the cause of the underprivileged sections? Should the voters wait for the next general election to extract ‘Vote Money’ or should they be guided by progressive ideology towards organised struggle for collective development, peace and democracy? Aren’t we in Manipur expecting a clear ideological stand and firmed political commitment of a PARTY instead of hoodwinking us by deceptive sentiment and organised adventurism in the name of freedom and democracy that merely perpetuate sectarianism and subjugation!