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Manipur politics where back stabbing and betrayal have been normalised

Anticipated Poaching Spree Ahead in Manipur’s Brand of Turncoat Politics is Making Parties Play Cards Close to Chest and Not Reveal Intended Candidates

Elections to the Manipur Legislative Assembly are barely five months away, however, even though the election dates are still to be officially notified and political parties have still not announced their candidates, election tensions are becoming palpable. There is almost an uncanny sense of premonition that these elections would be marked not only by violence, but also by unprecedented switching of loyalties amongst prospective candidates in the days ahead of the parties declaring their candidates. Some of these defections would be out of compulsions of circumstance, as for instance those vying for a particular party’s ticket but losing out in the race may want to contest on another party’s ticket. For others, on the other hand, this will be part of their selfish personal career moves. Both of course will loudly testify once again how immature democracy still is on our soil.

We have already seen some of these turncoats. As expected the tendency in the rudderless politics of Manipur has been for politicians to tend to migrate towards the ruling party in the belief this is where they can reap personal benefits the most. The other truth about Manipur politics is, the ruling BJP is relatively new in the state therefore does not have as many battle-hardened veterans to field, therefore will be on the lookout to poach what they lack from the Congress, a party which has been a major player in the state for much longer, therefore have much deeper roots and wider range of entrenched and experienced politicians in its stable. Indeed, the state BJP is today already beginning to look more like an extension of the state Congress though in a different bottle. It is quite likely this is one of the reasons why these two parties have been playing their cards close to their chests, not even hinting who might ultimately get to be their candidates.

There is another interesting development amidst all this, and this one can be read, among others, as a consequence of an unhealthy incentive introduced during the high drama government formation contest immediately after the last elections in 2017. In that case, Congress had emerged as the single largest party with 28 seats in the 60-member house, followed by the BJP with 21. The then Governor, Najma Heptulla, for reasons which is anybody’s guess, decided to ignore the single largest party and gave the first opportunity to form the government to the BJP, which ultimately did manage to stitch together a multi-party coalition which included a Congress MLA who switched loyalty from day one but was never treated as a defector until the Supreme Court intervened three years later to ban him from entering the Assembly complex.

Even if it were to be agreed that in politics, fair can be foul and foul fair, what naturally followed thereafter has caused an important shift in the goal post of Manipur’s political game, one which is currently playing out ahead of the forthcoming 2022 February election. Many bright new entrants into the political arena who are strongly tipped to win are actually opting for parties which are predicted to emerge as kingmakers, rather than the frontrunners, the ruling BJP and the main opposition Congress. Their obvious calculation is, should they win as part of the team of either of these two parties, and even if the party they have chosen emerges ultimately with the number to form the new government, it is unlikely they would get a ministerial berth as these parties are already crowded with their own veterans. Hence, they have calculated that their best prospects for bagging ministerial positions would be as political mercenaries aligned with the smaller parties. Their bet is that a hung verdict is the most likely outcome, hence they would be in a position to join whichever party emerges as leader seeking allies and form the next government, of course after extracting their pounds of flesh.

This pound of flesh was grotesquely substantial in last government formation. The BJP with only 21 seats of their own had to enlist the support of at least 10 more MLAs to cross the majority mark. The Congress by contrast would have needed just three more but the Governor had other plans. The BJP ultimately won over National People’s Party, NPP, with four seats, and all four were given ministerial berths including that of deputy chief minister; Naga People’s Front, NPF, won four, got two ministerial berths; Lok Janshakti Party, LJP, won one but still got a ministerial berth; then there was the controversial Congress turncoat who too was made a minister till the SC axe fell on him. Manipur’s cabinet size ceiling specified by the 10th Schedule being 12 including the chief minister, the ruling BJP was left with only four berths, including the chief minister. Fortunately for the BJP, most of its MLAs then were first timers, and therefore not too ambitious. In the four and half years that have gone by, things have changed, and many of the party’s own MLAs who were left empty handed may not find it easy to retain their seats. Some may not even get the party ticket.

There is another curiously self-nourishing fallout from the emergence of this mercenary politics. The very fact of many promising new entrants, as well as some veterans, opting out of the two main parties is strengthening the possibility of a hung Assembly, despite the claims by both the BJP and the Congress that they would manage a clear majority on their own. Since seats are now most likely going to be shared between multiple parties, the prospect of a single party majority has diminished considerably. Predictions are, the splintering of the electorate will get even more acute once the parties in the fray announce their candidates. At the moment each of the front runner parties, in particular the ruling BJP, has several aspirants vying for tickets for each of the 60 constituencies and those who ultimate lose out in this race may opt for other smaller parties.

While there can never be a fool-proof election results prediction, and one or the other parties could actually win majority seats, the popular anticipation is, the seeds for a splintered verdict sown at the end of the last election by the then Governor has left a demon which may not be easy for Manipur to exorcise anytime soon and the state may have to prepare to live with a new brand of politics of mercenary coalition and normalised political disloyalty – at least till another tectonic shift in attitude comes about.

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