From all appearances and from the state Congress’ own beleaguered history, it does seem the party’s biggest enemy is none other than itself. Indeed if the party can boast of few defeats on the electoral battlefields of democracy, its ultimate downfalls have been ironically and tragically on account of the disloyalty of its own legislators. If developments in the past few weeks is anything to go by, this bizarre story is poised to repeat. It cannot be any consolation for observers that this story is not unique to the state Congress. In “the theatre of the absurd” that Manipur politics has been reduced to, it has become a very predictable pattern for political parties to ultimately self destruct on the altar of greed and avarice.
Currently, as newspaper readers would be aware, there is dissidence in the Okram Ibobi’s Congress ministry. Call it the genius of the chief minister, or else his hubris, but he has in the course of the two and half decades he has been at the state’s helm, managed to virtually eliminate all opposition parties, either by weaning away and absorbing their MLAs or else swallowing the parties they belonged to in single gulps. In fact, it is often said, Okram Ibobi, seasoned politician that he is, is known for keeping plaint opposition political parties as his personal allies to keep rebels within his party at bay. Here is a politician who understands from instinct what Sun Tzu in his ancient Chinese treatise “The Art of War” meant when he said “keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer”. The Congress won a comfortable majority of 42 seats in the elections to the 60-member 10th Manipur Legislative Assembly in February 2012, but now this number has grown to 47 MLAs by whatever the means.
The dissidents, with a claimed strength of 27, are now demanding a complete reshuffle of the ministry, or in effect to drop all or most of the current ministers to accommodate MLAs from their camp. Curiously, they are not asking for a change of guard at the top, but only asking the boss to change his lieutenants. Obviously, they are aware, at this moment the boss is too strong and under his leadership, the state Congress made a clean sweep of the state’s two Lok Sabha seats in the May Indian elections in which the BJP delivered the Congress a humiliating on the national arena. This humiliation includes neighbouring Assam which is also currently witnessing an unprecedented dissident movement and the Congress High Command seems to be succumbing to the dissidents’ pressures. But in Manipur the Congress High Command is unlikely to do anything which might amount to slighting the two parallel power centres, Ibobi and his deputy, MPCCI president Gaikhangam, who saved the party some grace in its near complete national drubbing. If the tussle was between Ibobi and Gaikhangam, the scenario would have been radically different, but this does not seem to be the case, at least for the moment.
There is no gainsaying that the leaders of the 27 dissident MLAs would be calculating the value of their rebellion against what they perceive as a looming BJP threat to the state Congress’ sway. Without spelling it out, theirs is a veiled threat that Congress house could tumble. There can also be no doubt that state BJP which did not win a single seat either in the state Assembly elections in February 2012 or in the Lok Sabha elections in May, would be fishing in troubled waters to enter the Assembly by the back door. Those who think such an outcome is possible would also be presuming, rightly or wrongly, that the state Governor is a BJP man, for unlike many other Governors, he has not been made to walk the plank by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP led NDA government. In this regard, it must be said with regrets that the NDA government has made the partisan nature of the unspoken role of the Governors more than obvious, lowering the public esteem of this high Constitutional office more than ever before.
If this is what the dissidents are betting on, they could be in for surprises. With the mandate Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, received at the May elections, he is unlikely to be in any hurry to walk controversial territories to lap up Assemblies of small states through engineered defections. The euphoric wave of nationwide goodwill he has been riding ever since his resounding victory has still not worn away for him to be encouraging any desperate resort like this just as yet. There is another thing which may spoil the dissident’s gamble. The ceiling on the size of the state cabinet stipulated by the Anti Defection Law is extremely low to accommodate too many of them. The recommended size is 10 percent of the size of the Assembly, but for small states Assemblies such as Manipur, some concession is made. As it stands today, it is 12 including the chief minister and deputy chief minister. In other words, even if all ministers were to be dropped and the cabinet newly reconstituted with only the dissident MLAs, only 10 of the claimed 27 can be accommodated. Newspaper reports also indicated the incumbent ministers are unlikely to give in without a fight, and they have made it certain that they too have the same nuisance potential as the dissidents, should they be sidelined. Obviously the Congress, still licking the wounds of defeat, is not going to have a cake walk on the matter.
What is despicable and depressing of the brand of Manipur politics, as evident in such uncomely rebellions is, politics here continues to be an extension of the notorious culture of government contracts. What is being bitterly fought over is the privilege to be the apex agents to control these contract jobs, and little to do with contesting visions for Manipur and its people. Organized robbery of the public coffer and self aggrandizement, rather than a concern for the future of Manipur, remains the primary objective of what many have come to define as the dirty “business of politics” in the literal sense.
Leader Writer: Pradip Phanjoubam