Manipur: Biren Singh's Cabinet may end up as a collage of coalition with too little space for BJP ministers

Football is a scintillating game and the role of the left-back is immensely important from preventing the team from conceding any goals. Once a long-time Man Friday of three-time Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh of the Congress, Nongthombam Biren Singh did exactly that by shielding Ibobi from all kinds of troubles until there was a fallout between the two. Finally, the former footballer joined the BJP in October last year.

Manipur Governor Najma Heptulla handing over the invitation letter to BJP leader Nongthombam Biren Singh to form the government of Manipur at Raj Bhavan, Imphal, Manipur on Tuesday. PTI

Manipur Governor Najma Heptulla handing over the invitation letter to BJP leader Nongthombam Biren Singh to form the government of Manipur at Raj Bhavan, Imphal, Manipur on Tuesday. PTI

The price that Ibobi paid for this fallout is showing up as the Congress failed to garner three more candidates in their favour and the BJP is well on course to form the government, with Biren Singh as the chief minister — a nemesis that Ibobi might have never expected even in his dreams.

Though the BJP is set to form the government in the state for the first time, and its third in the North East, the path was far from cruising. The election results threw up a hung Assembly with Congress winning 28 seats and BJP 21 seats. The inroad that the BJP made was incredible but it was insufficient to form a government in the state with a 60-member Assembly. A majority requires a minimum of 31 members.

Soon after the results, a massive behind the scenes maneuvering began as it was evident that support from the smaller parties was critical to form a government. The National People's Party (NPP) and Naga Peoples Front (NPF) won four seats each while the Trinamool Congress (TMC), Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and an Independent candidate won one seat each. Adding to the confusion was reports of BJP allegedly "kidnapping" Independent candidate Ashab Uddin, who won state's Jiribam Assembly seat. Rumours were rife that he was being flown to either Guwahati or Kolkata at the behest of BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav and Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is also the convenor of North-East Democratic Alliance. There was also news of mass defections from the Congress to the BJP but nothing has been confirmed so far. When Firstpost tried to contact the MLA, his mobile phone was found to be switched off despite numerous attempts.

In the midst of these confusions and scramble for power, Manipur Governor Najma Heptullah initially indicated that she might call the party with the largest mandate — in this case, the Congress — to form the government although she asked Ibobi to resign in the first place. Heptullah also sought the physical presence of the four NPP legislators along with their party president to be presented before her as the outgoing chief minister claimed to have their support. He, in fact, presented a letter of support from these MLAs which later on was rejected by NPP president Conrad Sangma as "fake".

"We are with the BJP. It was final long time back. I don't have a copy of the letter which the Congress presented to the governor saying that they have our support. Let this formation of government be over first. We would decide on the next course of action then," Sangma, who is also Lok Sabha of MP from Tura, told Firstpost from Imphal.

The NPP president is camping in the Manipur capital since the declaration of poll results.

When asked on conditions to support the BJP, he said, "We have definitely sought ministerial positions but the discussion is continuing on the number of berths. It is too early to comment on that."

Ironically, the alleged letter that Ibobi reportedly presented to the state governor claimed the support of the four NPP legislators taking the tally to 32, enough to form the government in the state. With the fiasco in the NPP front, the Congress' hope of forming the government simply evaporated.

Since the announcement of results on 11 March, things have moved so fast in the BJP camp that the party has gathered just enough numbers with no defection from the Congress even required. Provided there is defection, it is doubtful how much ground it will hold for any disqualification to happen as per the anti-defection law. The law states: "An elected Member of Parliament or a State Legislature, who has been elected as a candidate set up by a political party and a nominated Member of Parliament or a State Legislature who is a member of political party at the time he takes his seat would be disqualified on the ground of defection if he voluntarily gives up his membership of such political party or votes or abstains from voting in the House contrary to any direction of such party." However, the first sitting of the House has not yet happened in the state so far.

The uneasy relation that Ibobi had with the Naga fraternity in the state also proved detrimental to the party as the NPF made it clear that it supports the BJP. The former chief minister, in a largely politically motivated stunning decision last December, carved out seven new districts of Jiribam, Kangpokpi, Kakching, Tengnoupal, Kamjong, Noney and Pherzawl, to create a division in the Naga-dominated areas in the erstwhile hill districts of the state. When contacted, the NPF did not divulge if the negotiations with the BJP in exchange of support have reached the end.

"We are still discussing on the modalities. We want cabinet berths but I don't want to go beyond that now. But we are supporting the BJP," said NPP spokesperson Achumbemo Kikon.

The support from lone LJP MLA Karam Shyam to the BJP takes the number tally of the party to 30 but he made it clear that he hopes for a cabinet post. Shyam won the Langthabal Assembly seat in the recently concluded election defeating BJP's O Joy Singh with a margin of 2,331 votes.

"I cannot reveal now which ministry I want. It has been conveyed to the BJP by our party president Ram Vilas Paswan," Shyam told Firstpost from Imphal. The LJP is already part of the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre.

The TMC MLA from Thanga constituency Tongbram Robindro Singh chose to keep his card close to his chest, but his ministerial ambitions were enough to indicate whom he should support to become one.

"Our party president Mamata Banerjee has given me a free hand, so far our party's support either to the BJP or to the Congress is concerned," said Robindra. When asked if he wants to be a minister, it was a clear "yes" signalling which way his support would eventually go. His support to the BJP would take its tally to 31, the magic mark for a majority in the state Assembly.

As per the Constitution (Ninety-First Amendment) Act, 2003 of Article 164, Manipur cannot have either more or less than 12 state ministers. The Amendment of Article 164 says, "(1A) The total number of Ministers, including the Chief Minister, in the Council of Ministers in a State shall not exceed fifteen per cent. of the total number of members of the Legislative Assembly of that State: Provided that the number of Ministers, including Chief Minister in a State shall not be less than twelve."

These 12 also include the chief minister making it even tougher for the BJP to accommodate the ministerial aspirations of the coalition partners. With the TMC, LJP and the Independent likely to claim a ministerial berth each, the possibility is that both NPP and NPF would like to have at least two representatives in the state cabinet. With eight berths gone, including that of Biren Singh, who is the chief minister-designate with the formal notification out from Raj Bhavan out announcing the time of swearing-in on Wednesday, only four ministerial positions would be available for the rest of the BJP legislators. Unless the BJP follows a rotational pattern, there is high possibility that dissent would soon emerge in the party ranks weakening the government whose stability is at the most on the brink of being fragile.

And lessons are not far away from Manipur to be remembered. BJP should also be aware the way they got into power in Arunachal Pradesh, can be the same way they might lose power in Manipur if there is defection en masse as the same anti-defection law states: "Disqualification on ground of defection not to apply in case of split.—Where a member of a House makes a claim that he and any other members of his legislature party constitute the group representing a faction which has arisen as a result of a split in his original political party and such group consists of not less than one-third of the members of such legislature party."

For the BJP legislature party in Manipur, the one-third is seven, a simple math that can quickly disentangle like quicksand. Biren Singh scored a brilliant goal but he has much more defending to do starting Wednesday.

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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2017 10:06:22 IST

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