Nestled in a remote corner of North East India, Manipur that often grabs headlines for wrong reasons (or none at all), is quietly getting ready to elect a new Assembly. Unlike the dusty roads of Badayun in Uttar Pradesh that usually get more footfalls during polls or the former cricketers and military men engaged in electoral battles in Punjab, Manipur fights its political battles alone with the nation at large hardly bothering to care. Limelight or not, the state has its own stories to tell.
Behind those heavily rimmed glasses that gives the right impression of a professor is a suave, smart and genteel young man who has shown the intent to take on the high and mighty in the state's politics. When Firstpost spoke to the 33-year-old Harvard-educated Erendro Leichombam, he had just returned after a long day of campaigning and even before the interview was complete he had to rush for another meeting only to complete the interview the following day. This US-returned former World Bank Fellow, who also served in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), says he responded to his inner call to serve his home state Manipur.
A look at his CV and you would be surprised to find him toiling in the streets of Thangmeiband, a constituency from the Imphal district of Manipur. One can often find him striking conversations with strangers, convincing the young and the old to seek change, to embrace the new.
Trained in Economics at the Soka University of America and in Mathematics at the University of California, Irvine, this young Manipuri man refused to live the life of an NRI. Awed by an enigma called Irom Sharmila Chanu — a Manipuri activist who after years of hunger strike seeking repealing of the notorious Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Afspa) decided to plunge into politics this year — Leichombam tells Firstpost in a tête-à-tête as to what attracted him towards Mengoubi (the fair one) as Sharmila is sometimes fondly referred to as, his political journey that starts with People’s Resurgence Justice Alliance (PRJA) as its convener, the upcoming poll battle, his humble origin and a grand vision of Manipur. Edited excerpts:
You left a high profile job and returned to your home state. What made you take that step?
Very few people asked me that. They admired the fact that I left the US and came back to India. But nobody bothered to ask why. I still have a visa which is valid till 2019. But my passport is all dusty now. I haven't gone out of India since I came back four years ago. I came back because it was a very spiritual thing... you know... I was there in the US for 10 years. I did my BA and MA. I had a fellowship with the World Bank. I also worked very briefly with the UNDP. Around 2011-12, I almost had a spiritual experience in the sense that I really felt that my parents are not educated, they are not even literate. They used to run a small canteen where they would sell literally like chai and pakoda. From there they moved on, worked very hard and made sure all the five children got a good education. And they ultimately ended up running a small grocery store which they are still doing until today. I come from a very humble background and I have achieved what many people thought was completely impossible given my background, my history and my family.
And I thought what is it that I really want to do? Do I become an entrepreneur like Bill Gates and make a lot of money or do I do something meaningful? Ultimately the answers that I got very unambiguously was that I want to make a difference. Then I asked myself, okay, if I want to make a big difference is it going to be in the US, somewhere in India or is it going to be in Manipur? Once you get very serious on these questions you basically end up going on a very spiritual path. Ultimately, I decided to help my family and my community in Manipur which is struggling so much right now. That struggle is part of my own history. The blood that runs in my veins is directly from my parents, and their parents, our forefathers. Basically, I was trapped in my own history. And I could not get out of it.
How did it work out after you returned?
I came back and looked for a job. I talked to a lot of influential people including advisers of the current chief minister and the home minister. But it's almost like their answer was you're trained to be a cosmonaut, you're trained to operate a rocket but in Manipur, all you need to know is how to drive a rickshaw. So, your training is not appropriate for the Manipuri context. I was trying to seek a lateral entry. I wanted to be advising the policymakers. I wanted to be a part of the governance to bring some changes. But I was totally rejected, unfortunately. And back in 2013, I ended up doing skills development programme for unemployed youths in the state.
Is that when you started on your journey with Irom Sharmila?
As the election 2016 was coming, I along with some youths started thinking about how we can bring some change in the electoral process. Very fortunately at that particular point, Irom Sharmila announced she is going to quit her fast. And that she is going to enter politics. Once she announced her decision, I contacted one of her associates who was known to me. I told him that since she is getting into politics and I can help her. I met her for the first time in her prison cell in the JN Hospital. The first thing I told her is 'Che (means sister in Manipuri), politics is not an easy thing. It is probably the most difficult profession in the world. And when you enter politics you might have to do things that you won't particularly like.' From there on it started. In a very short period of time, we started a political party with high energy and a lot of potentials. While working together everybody suggested that I should be the convener of the party. And obviously, Sharmila was there as the spiritual and symbolic force. That's how it all began. There's no one like Sharmila in Manipur. Sharmila is a symbol of incorruptibility which is very rare in Manipur today. She being the symbol of our party is our greatest strength.
Was being a candidate a surprise to you, or was it always part of the plan?
I never thought to be a candidate let alone be the convener of the PRJA. All I wanted to do is to help Sharmila.
Realistically where does PRJA stand? People are not too sure about it.
We have started off with five candidates. We have a few candidates in mind and those are in the pipeline. Right now people think Sharmila, Erendro, Najma Phundreimayum and two others are going to fight the elections, and maybe, they are not going to form a government. Maybe they are not going to be as effective. Some people have already started writing us off. But we have a pretty good organic support. For example, in my own constituency, there are like 30,000 voters. And Manipur is an extremely corrupt state. So, what my two opponents are doing is they are mobilising volunteers by distributing cash. They are basically engaging in very corrupt and unethical practices. So, usually, when they go for meeting you will see 100 people. When you come to my meeting you will hardly see 30 people. That's the perception. What we are doing is we are going door-to-door, talking very intensively, on a one-on-one basis and people believe us. People know these are the kind of people we need to change Manipur. These people may not always come out in droves for political meetings. Why? Because most of these 30,000 voters lead a very normal life. These are the decent people who are going to vote for us. Not the hired voters who are shouting their lungs out in the streets of Imphal. Maybe their maximum number is 1,000. But what about those 29,000 voters who are sitting quietly at home, who does not want to come out openly for political meetings? Even if only one candidate wins from our party he or she will be the voice of the party in the state. Manipur hasn't had an effective opposition for a very long time. That's why the current chief minister does whatever the hell he wants. He has bought everybody in the last 15 years with money power and his corrupt network.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is also an emerging force in Manipur now. How do you plan to tackle that?
People perceive BJP as the viable alternative to Congress. It's not that people are very happy with the BJP. It is more so people are against Congress. I think this time around the seats would split up in such a way that no political party would get a majority.
Are you saying Manipur is going to have a hung Assembly?
I believe BJP will do some deal with the Congress MLAs similar to what they did in Arunachal Pradesh just a few weeks ago. Basically, the BJP with its money and muscle power will wrestle pretty hard to ensure they make the government. Let's see how it turns out. Essentially my understanding has always been that the BJP has not won more than four seats in its 32 years of existence in the state. They never won more than four percent of the vote share. And the four seats they won was like when someone like Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister. But under all these stooges (prime Minister Narendra) Modi, (BJP president) Amit Shah, Ram Madhav and (Assam Minister) Himanta Biswa Sarma I don't think they would make much impact. They are saying that their vote share would go up from four to 40 percent. That hasn't happened in 32 years. It is very unlikely that they would win as much as they are projecting.
If Irom Sharmila becomes the next chief minister how much will you be able to change Manipur in five years?
At this point, as we speak we have said that we are not going to ally with the Congress. The Congress, by the way, is going to win some seats because the BJP is a weak party in spite of anti-incumbency. The Congress is going to be in a better position than what the BJP is projecting. Since we are not going to ally with the Congress it is very likely that we are going to be in the opposition. At some point, if we are in power the first thing we are going to do is to pass a resolution to repeal Afspa. It would say that Manipur is not a disturbed area anymore and would push the ball into the Parliament. We want Afspa repealed from Manipur and possibly removed entirely from the statute book. In this long history of Manipur, no private or ruling MLA has even sponsored a resolution that says we don't want Afspa in Manipur. We would disclose the names of the people who vote against this resolution, and the people would know about the real enemies of Manipur.
Secondly, we want to ensure that Lokayukta is implemented in Manipur. We want to get rid of corruption. Our attempt would be to eliminate it as much as possible by starting an anti-corruption bureau consisting of Lokayukta members, Lokpal, civil police, and the Central Board of Investigation (CBI).
Thirdly, we want to investigate exactly what happened during Ibobi's regime in the last three years. Illegal constructions, land grabbing, illegal recruitment, bribery and by the way Ibobi government without disclosing it to the public has already agreed to lease oil blocks to a Netherland-based firm called Jubiliant Oil and Gas Private Limited. It has been confirmed that Manipur has oil blocks to the tune of 5 million cubic metre. We want to investigate the damage that Ibobi did to the Manipur economy.
Fourthly, we want to do something about the unemployment situation in Manipur. There is about 10-12 lakh unemployed youth in Manipur. The state has a population of around 28 lakh. Clearly, half the population is unemployed.
Ibobi a divisive politician...
As far as Ibobi is concerned, he plays with the sentiment of the Meiteis or the valley residents against the tribals who are all across the state, more so in the hills. He is playing a communal divisive politics. I say this unambiguously and I have said it all along that Ibobi is the most divisive figure in Manipur's history.
How will you unite all sections of the people in Manipur?
Ibobi always talks about the territorial integrity of Manipur. That is his card. We want emotional integrity among all ethnic communities in Manipur. When we do the emotional unification, territorial unification is going to be there. Manipur has been there for 5,000 years and I don't think five decades is going to break it into parts. There is a kind of resentment among the tribals against the valley. There is a general belief that the so-called Hindu population has been neglecting the tribal counterparts. We will try our best to remove that sense of resentment.
Your agenda talks a lot about justice. What's that?
Our idea is not to punish people. Our idea is not of retrospective application. Our idea of justice is like, for example, meritocracy: people who deserve a job rightfully will get it and not those who can pay. Another example is our endeavour to repeal Afspa. We are not second class citizens of India. We are following the same Constitution. We don't appreciate this step-motherly treatment. Even the National Anthem excludes us. It ends with 'Banga'. Are we not part of the Union of India? We want to see that the Manipuris have the same rights as all other Indians. There is also a nexus between the contractors and politicians. They have to face the law of the country, and that is justice. There are honest, hard-working and law-abiding people in Manipur, and restoring their faith in the system is justice. Again, Manipur suffers from insurgency from cessationist forces. Bringing them for dialogue is justice.
You want to see a self-reliant economy in Manipur. Is that possible?
Manipur was an economically sovereign for thousands of years. Now we are a special category state. It means nothing but that we are dependent. We want the economic sovereignty back for the state. We can't have a Toyota factory or a rocket-making factory in Manipur. That is out of the question at this point. Manipur doesn't have even one large-scale industry. We have to look for resources where we have comparative advantages. For example, Manipur has lots of bamboos. It is a very sustainable crop. We have great natural resources. For example, people until a few years didn't know that Manipur has a large fuel reserve. We need to have industries that we can sustain. We are also strategically located as the gateway to South East Asia. The whole region needs to be developed instead of the hoopla for all these years. But the Central government is not interested. They only want Manipur as a buffer zone against a possible Chinese attack.