In the election to the 11th Manipur Assembly no party won the magic figure to form a government. But Governor Najma Heptullah acted as the perfect henchwoman of the saffron brigade and threw constitutional niceties to the wind by ignoring the claim of Congress leader Okram Ibobi Singh and his flock of 28 MLAs in the 60-member house being the single largest party and instead chose BJP, with 21 MLAs, to form a new government.
The BJP is being propped up by four MLAs belonging to the National People’s Party, four from the Naga People’s Front, one from the Lok Jana Sakhti Party, and one from the Congress. The BJP had also earlier inducted into its fold the lone Trinamool Congress MLA, taking its tally to 32 by virtue of which the governor was satisfied and opened the gates of the Raj Bhawan for them.
Former Border Security Force footballer and editor of a vernacular Naharol gi Thoudang and minister in Ibobi’s second tenure, Nongthonbam Biren was sworn in as the Chief Minister on 15 March. Former director-general of police Yumnam Joykumar, who was denied a BJP ticket but was elected on an NPP ticket, was named the deputy chief minister. The only other BJP legislators to be accommodated is Thongnam Bishwajit. All the four from the NPP got the ministerial posts, plus one from the LJP and one from the NPF. And the lone Congress MLA Th Shyamkumar, who joined the BJP, was rewarded with a ministerial post, bringing the tally to nine, including the chief minister, leaving only three more vacancies in the cabinet.
The run- up to the elections had been hectic with all the big guns of the saffron party lining up at Imphal. It was headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with party president Amit Shah in tow and Prakash Javadekar, Union HRD minister, making Imphal his base camp with a host of other Central ministers who had been visiting Imphal over the last three months. They were later joined by Assam and Arunachal Pradesh chief ministers, Sarbanada Sonowal and Pema Khandu respectively.
Politicians make strange bedfellows and the BJP is no exception. For instance it was only in November 2016 that new chief minister Biren had announced that the BJP will have nothing to do with the NPF, a party which has, in its constitution, a clause that calls for the unification of all Naga-inhabited areas under one administrative unit, implying Greater Nagaland or a threat to Manipur’s territorial integrity.
But as soon as the NPF wrote to the governor extending support to a non –Congress government, the BJP seized the opportunity and even made an NPF legislator a cabinet minister.
The prime minister in his rhetoric best had told an election rally in Imphal that if a BJP government is elected in Manipur than the ongoing economic blockade the pro-NSCN (IM) Manipur-based United Naga Council had imposed since 1 November last year, will be liftedwithin 48 hours. And, with the NPF as a coalition partner, it was thought that the UNC will listen to the request of the new government, (the first cabinet meeting of the new government had a single agenda and that was to appeal to the UNC to lift the blockade). But it appears to have fallen on deaf ears.
The UNC has now come out publicly stating that the blockade will continue till the new government invites them formally for talks. It seems that the Nagas want to have their pound of flesh and crucial to their demand is the rollback on the recent creation of the Kangpokpi District, carved out of Senapati and Jiribam districts bifurcated from Imphal East. And the NPF members are also going to be hell bent on the same.
And if just-sworn-in chief minister Biren does that, Kukis and Meiteis are certain to revolt. So, by all accounts, the honeymoon between the BJP and the NPF may not last long.
This election also saw some no-holds- bar advertisement war between the BJP and the Congress. The Election Commission of India is not happy over the BJP’s desperate move in inserting an advertisement in the local newspapers with its doctored-certificates, putting in trouble the editors of the local papers that had carried the advertisements.
What is more, in its desperation to swell its rank, the BJP even tried to snatch the lone Independent MLA from Jiribam. A former Congress minister had gone to Jiribam to fetch him and was returning to Imphal from Guwahati by air. Apparently, acting on directives from the high command, the Central Industrial Security Force personnel, guarding the Imphal international airport, detained the duo till the Assam chief minister sent a special plane to Imphal and whisked the Independent MLA away to safer Guwahati, leaving the Congress dumfounded.
The other side show of the elections this time is the eclipsing of the “Iron Lady of Manipur” Irom Sharmila, who in August last year broke her 16-year-old fast demanding the repeal of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in force in Manipur since the end of 1979. She, along with her Harvard-returned Erendro Leichombam had floated the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance and contested against outgoing chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh.
Around the same time her boyfriend/fiancé, an NRI of Goan origin by the name of Desmond Coutinho started abusing all her supporters and the general Manipuri people using filthy languages on social media. So much so that Sharmila was told in no uncertain terms that unless she apologised on behalf of Desmond, the people will announce that they have ceased to support her citing the reasons thereof. Sharmila seemed to have understood the predicament and issued a statement apologising on Desmond’s behalf and seeking forgiveness from the public on that account.
It was with great difficulty that her supporters could muster up 10 voters from Thoubal to vouch for her when she filed the nomination papers. And when the results finally came out she had polled just 90 votes compared to 16,000 plus for Ibobi.
And the second shock she must have got was that initially she was planning to get married to the NRI after election, the results notwithstanding. But her lover boy again declared that he will marry her only after the Lok Sabha polls in 2019 where she is expected to bring about a sweeping change in Manipuri politics. Left with no choice a shattered Sharmila has left the state for a retreat centre somewhere in Kerala. She may soon become only a memory among the Manipuris.
But all said and done, the 19 sitting Congress members of the assembly, including four cabinet ministers, lost in the hustings thereby bringing in a semblance of change in the state and Ibobi’s hope for a record fourth time got dashed although he managed to get his son and nephew elected.
The Congress MLA who switched over to the BJP has to elect himself in another six months. The BJP Government now only has three ministerial berths to offer to any new comers and the grapevine says that grumbling has already begun among the BJP legislators, so such so that Assam’s minister Himanta Biswa Sarma is said to be have taken four of them to Assam to assuage hurt feelings. And with the NPF demanding their pound of flesh and the UNC unrelenting in its stand, the NPF might be coerced into withdrawing support and therefore, the possibility of President’s Rule being imposed in the next six months cannot be ruled out.
(THE WRITER IS THE IMPHAL-BASED SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE STATESMAN)