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Relevance of Congress' Victory in Manipur

The results of the Manipur elections point to an interesting theme paradox - the Congress was voted back to power despite its all-round failure in governance. The voters perhaps felt the need to vote the party back to power in the state contiguous to its reign in the centre, conditioned by incidents in history pertaining to centre-state relations. The rise of the Trinamool Congress as a force in the state and the marginal victories for the Naga People's Front also carried important local messages.

COMMENTARY

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” AITMC not only entered but opened

Relevance of Congress’ Victory

accounts in a big way surprising many observers. The party fielded 47 candi

in Manipur

dates in the 60-member house. It also returned seven legislators to fi nish behind only the Congress. Some frivolous Pradip Phanjoubam explanations have been forwarded that

The results of the Manipur elections point to an interesting theme paradox – the Congress was voted back to power despite its all-round failure in governance. The voters perhaps felt the need to vote the party back to power in the state contiguous to its reign in the centre, conditioned by incidents in history pertaining to centre-state relations. The rise of the Trinamool Congress as a force in the state and the marginal victories for the Naga People’s Front also carried important local messages.

Pradip Phanjoubam (phanjoubam@gmail.com) is editor of the Imphal Free Press.

B
y and large there were two chief determinants that led to the landslide victory of the Congress in the elections to the 10th Manipur Legislative Assembly held on 28 February and the result of which was declared on 6 March together with those of four o ther states. An assessment of these two conditions should make the picture somewhat clear as to why the stunning victory of the Congress was expected and yet the sheer magnitude of the win was surprising. One of these factors is an innate insecurity of the state’s electorate and which is shared by most o ther small north-eastern states. The other is specific to Manipur and it has to do with the atrocious manner in which the parties in the opposition benches chose to commit political hara-kiri in the past 10 years of uninterrupted C ongress rule.

A convenient way to survey these factors would be a critical consideration of the dramatic entry of two new political parties into the state politics – that of the ruling party in West Bengal – the All India Trinamool Congress (AITMC) and the ruling party in Nagaland, the Naga People’s Front (NPF). They introduced new colours, moods and concerns to the electoral arena and indeed to the state as such, in different ways.

march 24, 2012

electoral politics in Manipur and indeed the entire north-eastern states is not rooted deep enough and therefore politicians and political parties lack fi rm ideological leanings making them unscrupulous about changing hues quickly and whimsically. Instances of large-scale defections in the political history of the region, in particular that of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in Arunachal Pradesh switching over to Congress overnight en masse when the BJP fell from grace at the centre and a Congress government replaced it, are cited as a precedent. It is true there has been a tendency of politics in these states to always lean towards the party that is in power at the centre but this has a psychological explanation in which the subjects are not the only ones to blame. However before attempting this explanation, it must be noted that the answer of AITMC doing well as a fi rsttime entrant in Manipur is partly provided by this dominant psyche in the north-east. AITMC, though not the ruling party at the centre, does control important levers of power there and this would have worked to its advantage.

Centre-Leaning Calculus

This centre-leaning politics in the region however is born out of conditioning rather than any independent whim.

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Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

These switches of political loyalties are an indication of a deep and shared insecurity that, unless they are on the right side of the centre, could end up abandoned. A decade ago, when the Fifth Pay Commission recommendations were out and the salaries of government employees were hiked, the Manipur government was headed by W Nipamacha Singh of the Manipur State Congress Party (MSCP), a state party. The chief minister did not last a full term but while in power, he had a harrowing time, running from pillar to post to have funds released for as many as six months’ worth of pending salary bills at a time for government employees. The state at the time was in untold turmoil. It could be that this was a coincidence, but the common man on the streets cannot be blamed for concluding that when the party in power in the state is not the same as the one at the centre, bottlenecks develop in the channels of resource flow from the centre to the state. Memories such as these certainly would influence not just politicians but also electorate behaviour. The Congress victory as well as the success of the AITMC have much to thank this.

The dramatic success of the AITMC and the Congress’ victory has another very significant reason. During the last Congress tenure in power with Chief Minister Okram Ibobi at the helm, almost all other political parties in the state through their own selfish and limited visions marginalised themselves. On most of the contentious issues these parties were deafeningly silent. Many of their legislators hung around and nagged ministers for favours. Still many of them queued up for Congress tickets when the elections were announced. At least one party, the Communist Party of India (CPI), remained a formal partner in the state government, even after the party broke alliance with the Congress at the centre.

The opposition space in the assembly thus came to be abdicated. This is the vacuum which was just right for a shrill and pushy party with a charismatic leader

– like the AITMC to enter the fray. The party is now the second largest party in the state assembly with seven MLAs, commendable by any standard for a newcomer. Had the party entered the stage earlier, it probably would have done much better. All other parties, depleted in morale and commitment, ended up unable to field candidates in even half the assembly constituencies. Many including the CPI and Manipur People’s Party (MPP) drew blanks.

Desperately trying to remain relevant, four of these parties urgently formed a pre-poll alliance – the People’s Democratic Front (PDF) but this proved too little too late, despite the alliance attracting seven more parties at a later stage. The PDF partners also probably did not consider the thought that the Anti-Defection Law had lowered the ceiling on cabinet size – 12 including the chief minister in the case of Manipur, and therefore a coalition of more than two parties is likely to become strained as the only proven incentive for such coalitions is ministerial berths.

The Congress’ Winning Ability

The PDF did not therefore present a picture of stability and was unable to instil confidence to the badly fractured and shaken electorate of Manipur. The ruling Congress on the other hand was strong, resourceful, and because of its strength, able to posture as a non-partisan party, reaching out to the valley as well as the hills, and to all ethnic groups, setting up candidates in all the 60 constituencies, campaigning with the confi dence of winners. It was also able to convey the message, unlike the other disunited and decimated parties, that it had the sinews to hold the beleaguered state together. It won seats from amongst all ethnic communities too.

Most observers speculated a hung house with the ruling Congress emerging as the single largest party. The cynicism in the state being what it is, nobody thought a clear mandate was a possibility. But as this author suggested in an article in The Hindu (10 March 2012), the same cynicism is evident in the clear mandate of the people as well. If the voters have stopped expecting a change for the better, they were desperate not to have things slip any further.

It is no exaggeration that the outgoing Congress-headed government inspired only anger and indignation amongst a large section of the people. Rampant official corruption which has become a way of life, acute shortage of electricity for almost a decade, leaving the ordinary consumer with two hours of electricity a day to manage with, water taps which have run dry with the government not lifting a finger to do anything about it, crumbling roads have characterised governance in the state. The continued imposition of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act for the repeal of which Irom Sharmila has been on an epic hunger strike for nearly 12 years now, abject lack of governance which has passed on the law and order agenda into the hands of anybody or any organisation with some nuisance value, periodic prolonged blockades on the state’s lifelines with the government looking the other way even as prices of essential commodities rose to the sky, meant untold misery, uncertainty and insecurity for the common man. Yet, Manipur came out and voted resoundingly to bring back the government it hated. It

Economic & Political Weekly

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march 24, 2012 vol xlviI no 12

COMMENTARY

would not be incorrect to say Manipur result therefore was not so much about Congress winning. It was more about the non-Congress parties losing.

The Naga Issue

The entry of the second political party from outside the state, the NPF, was watched with particularly keen interest in both Manipur and Nagaland. On its count, many had even dubbed the Manipur election as an election which had another referendum within. The first was the familiar contest for power in the legislative assembly under provisions of the Indian Constitution, and the second, a reconfirmation of the support for Greater Nagaland, championed strongly by the faction of the militant organisation – the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (or Nagalim) – NSCN (IM), headed by Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chishi Swu, amongst the Naga tribes in Manipur. The Nagaland chief minister, Niphiu Rio, was among the star campaigners for the NPF, travelling by helicopter to the four hill districts of Manipur, Tamenglong, Senapati, Ukhrul and Chandel, considered by the Nagas to be part of their ancestral homeland. The party set up 12 candidates, three each in Tamenglong, Senapati and Ukhrul, two in Chandel and one in a constituency in Churachandpur district adjoining Tamenglong district, again considered part of the greater Naga homeland. The Nagaland chief minister, either out of conviction or to capitalise on what he thought was the dominant mood in these constituencies, called for the integration of Naga areas into one administrative establishment.

Those in Manipur with a claimed stake in the territorial integrity of the state would have heaved a sigh of relief, for if indeed this was a referendum for greater Nagaland, the NPF which represented the ideology did not fare too well. It returned four seats out of its 12, winning by extremely narrow margins in all of them. Significantly, in Ukhrul, the home district of NSCN (IM)’s top leader, Thuingaleng Muivah, of the three assembly seats the NPF could wrest only one, and this too by a razor thin margin of 55 votes. The two others went to the Congress.

The NPF’s tally is two lower than what another local Naga organisation in Manipur campaigning on the same ideological plank, the United Naga Council (UNC) which set up as many candidates in the same constituencies, returned fi ve years ago. This is despite, allegations of interference by militants prompting the election office to order repolling in 76 polling stations in these hill districts. While it would be too hasty to draw conclusions, regardless of whether there was such a referendum, this result would have bearings on the peace negotiations (now nearly a decade and a half old) between the NSCN (IM) and the Government of India. But the verdict on this imagined referendum is perhaps a vindication of an innate understanding amongst the different ethnic communities that regardless of politics and polemics, they are the ones who would – by the compulsions of geography and economy – continue to be neighbours. The Sadar Hills tussle between the Kukis and the Nagas in which the demands of the Kukis for bifurcation of a separate Kuki-dominated administrative district from the Naga-dominated Senapati district which led to a prolonged impasse and blockade of the state is just one episode that would have informed all of this impossibility.

There is yet another interesting development which went largely unnoticed in the national media which very well could have also contributed to the fi nal outcome of the elections especially in the valley districts. But even if it did not, it carried a loud message. Just at the time of the announcement of the election by the Election Commission of India, seven powerful militant organisations operating in the valley got together to form a coordinating committee which came to be known as CorCom, and banned the Congress Party from contesting the election for “being the most brutal party on the people”. On a daily basis, grenade attacks were made on Congress candidates and workers to coerce them into submission. The Congress landslide victory against this backdrop is also almost a statement of the will of the people on the matter of militancy. Manipur’s recent electoral history has always demonstrated such silent defiance which is a characteristic of the place. There are indeed shared concerns between the people and the militants, which is why the latter survive, but there is no complete congruence. This should be a valuable lesson for both the establishment as well as those fi ghting them.

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