Why political mad rush to join BJP may not guarantee the saffron party a victory in Manipur polls

The ruling party starts the 2022 Manipur elections from a position of great apparent strength. But the appearance can hide some hard realities

Samrat Choudhury January 26, 2022 05:28:04 IST
Why political mad rush to join BJP may not guarantee the saffron party a victory in Manipur polls

Representational image. ANI

Of late, the political news from Manipur is all about MLAs leaving and joining — leaving other parties and joining the ruling BJP. In just the past month, a senior Congress leader, Dr Chaltonlien Amo, who was vice president of the Manipur Pradesh Congress Committee, has joined the BJP. So has the sole Trinamool Congress MLA in the state, Tongbram Robindra. State minister Letpao Haokip quit BJP ally National People’s Party to join the saffron party. A former Congress MLA and retired IAS officer, Y Surchandra, is also among the recent inductees.

This latest rush to join the BJP bandwagon — or perhaps gravy train is a more accurate description — is only part of a trend that began soon after the last Assembly polls in 2017. As the results of those polls came in, an intense bout of what the Indian media calls “horse-trading” ensued. The Congress, which was then in power in the state under a long-reigning ‘strongman’ chief minister, Okram Ibobi Singh, had emerged as the single largest party with 28 seats in the house of 60. The BJP was second with 21, while four seats each were won by the NPP and the Naga People’s Front (NPF).

As the single largest party, the Congress had a good claim to first shot at forming the government. It was also only three seats short of the majority mark and needed the support of only one ally — the NPP or NPF — to get to the magic figure. The trouble was, the NPP was already in alliance with the BJP in Meghalaya, where NPP chief Conrad Sangma’s main opposition was the Congress led by his predecessor as Meghalaya chief minister, Mukul Sangma. As for the NPF, it was out of the question for them to support a government led by Ibobi Singh. The Manipur chief minister, who belongs to the majority Meitei community from the Imphal valley, had managed to alienate the Nagas who inhabit the surrounding hills.

The Congress failed to find allies. The BJP, which got first shot at government-formation, managed to cobble up a majority with support from the NPP and NPF, and the sole independent MLA, Ashab Uddin from Jiribam constituency, who was allegedly whisked away from inside Imphal airport. By and by, eight Congress MLAs switched sides to join the BJP, whose leader Chief Minister N Biren Singh himself had left the Congress to join the BJP less than six months before the elections. The process continued thereafter and by last August even the state Congress president, a six-time MLA, Govindas Konthoujam, had jumped his sinking ship to join the BJP.

Why political mad rush to join BJP may not guarantee the saffron party a victory in Manipur polls

N Biren Singh was sworn in as the chief minister when the BJP formed the government in coalition for the first time in Manipur in 2017. Image courtesy Twitter @NBirenSingh

There is therefore no doubt that the BJP starts the 2022 Manipur polls from a position of great apparent strength. However, the appearance hides some realities.

For starters, the BJP has a problem of plenty. By inducting a slew of Opposition leaders, it has ended up with a situation where there are multiple strong ticket aspirants for practically every seat. It has not yet declared its candidates. The moment it does, there will be many disappointed and disgruntled leaders within the party — and they and their rivals all know this.

Second, the BJP in Manipur is already an internally divided house, and this too is no secret. The leadership of Biren Singh has not been popular either in the party or outside. He has survived multiple rebellions by both his senior party colleagues and his allies in the NPP. In 2020, his Deputy Chief Minister, Yumnam Joykumar Singh of the NPP, had withdrawn support to his government along with the Independent MLA and three BJP rebels, thus reducing his government to a minority, but the government survived the ensuing confidence motion by resorting to a confidence trick that saw a voice vote from which eight Congress MLAs remained absent while the rebellious NPP MLAs returned to the fold in the nick of time.

This time around, the NPP sees itself as a more serious contender in the state. Last time, it had fought only nine seats, and won four. This time it expects to fight around 40 seats, and hopes to maintain a healthy winning ratio which would substantially better its previous tally. Crucially, its government in Meghalaya is no longer hostage to the BJP for support. With Mukul Sangma and most of the existing Congress MLAs there joining the Trinamool Congress, there is no obstacle to the Congress and the NPP becoming allies if needed.

The NPF will continue to contest from its stronghold in the state’s Naga-majority hills.

In those areas, where a powerful militant group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim’s Isak-Muivah faction has long held sway, the main rivalry in electoral politics is traditionally between the NPF and the Congress. The NPF may ally with the BJP but it is not about to cede space to them.

Apart from the Nagas, there is also a third powerful tribe that inhabits the Manipur hills, and determines the electoral fortunes of candidates in about ten seats. This is the Kuki-Chin-Zo conglomerate of related sub-tribes. This time, there will be a new party, the Kuki People’s Alliance, contesting the polls in those seats. It may pose a problem for both the Congress and the BJP. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Kuki ethnic militant organisations had openly backed the BJP candidate from the Outer Manipur constituency, a man from their tribe, just as Naga militant outfits had backed the Naga NPF candidate who eventually won.

There are 60 seats in the Manipur Assembly. Of these, roughly 37 are dominated by the Meitei community to which Biren Singh, his rival Ibobi Singh of the Congress, and the NPP’s Joykumar Singh all belong.

Ten each are dominated by the Naga and Kuki tribes, with the remainder being dominated by the state’s minorities, mainly the indigenous Muslims known as Pangals. As a party, BJP’s Hindu nationalist appeal is largely restricted to the predominantly Hindu Meiteis, although that appeal is attenuated by a complex history of tension between Hinduism and the old indigenous Sanamahi faith.

The Nagas and Kukis are devout Christians not enamoured of Hindu nationalism. The nationalist aspect of this nationalism has also not traditionally been popular with any of the state’s major communities. All three have histories of varying but fairly widespread support for powerful armed militant outfits. These groups inevitably play a role in elections. It is difficult to say where exactly underground politics ends and mainstream electoral politics begins. The murky interplay of militants and government agencies is a factor in election outcomes in Manipur.

In the final analysis, though, the largest determinant in who rules Manipur is not the gun. It is currency notes with the peaceful image of Mahatma Gandhi.

The writer is a journalist and author. His most recent book is ‘The Braided River: A Journey Along the Brahmaputra’, published by HarperCollins in 2021. Views expressed are personal.

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