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Biren’s Two Birds With One Stone Gambit Can Make or Unmake Manipur BJP

Come Thursday 26th March 2020, the scheduled day of voting for the lone Rajya Sabha seat, Manipur’s titular king, Leishemba Sanajaoba, in all likelihood, would become the first Manipuri King to represent the State as a member of Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Indian Parliament.

On Thursday, the State’s electoral college, consisting 60 MLAs, minus the Andro MLA, Th. Syamkumar (who has been disqualified by the Supreme Court for crossfloor defection), will decide whether the Maharaja of Manipur or the Congress’ T. Mangibabu Singh would be the lone Rajya Sabha MP of Manipur in the Parliament.

Even though the Congress is the single largest party with 28 seats in the 60 seat State Legislative Assembly, the BJP will quite comfortably muster the requisite number by garnering 11 more votes from its partners (NPP, NPF, LJD and an Independent), over and above the party’s own 21 votes.

It is another matter that the BJP sealed the deal after putting plumb portfolios, held earlier by disqualified minister, Th. Syamkumar Singh, on the table for the NPP as well as NPF. Subsequently, NPF who had earlier filed Honreikhui Kashung as its candidate withdrew him after Assam’s strongman, Hemant Biswas managed to negotiate the understanding, leaving the field for a straight fight between the treasury bench versus the Opposition.

Significantly, the stirring question is not who will win the lone Rajya Sabha seat but will the Maharaja of Manipur give in to the rising public pressure and call it quits after wrestling the prestigious Rajya Sabha seat on 26th March?

Whichever way the King decides, the stakes are pretty high, especially for the first BJP Chief Minister of BJP, Nongthombam Biren Singh.

Ever since Leishemba Sanajaoba filed his nomination paper as a BJP candidate for the lone Rajya Sabha polls on Friday, there has been a hue and cry with many voluntary organisations in Manipur, raising objections against the titular king contesting in the ensuing Rajya Sabha election. While there are several civil societies backing the king’s entry into active politics, reasoning that there are many MPs in India representing different states which were once independent kingdoms like Manipur, many other voluntary organizations in the State sense a malicious agenda and wants the king to withdraw his decision.

Right from the time he assumed power, Chief Minister, N. Biren Singh has been facing challenges to his leadership. Dissidents within the BJP had orchestrated several moves to effect a change in leadership but to N. Biren Singh’s good fortunate, the party’s central leadership, particularly PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, have so far stuck with him. Observers say the party leadership see Biren Singh as the only option who can keep the coalition government running its full term, and someone who can even orchestrate a change of government if odds are against him, given his Congress background.

To his own credit, Biren Singh has successfully branded himself as the ‘People’s CM’ with a number of people-oriented policies. ‘Meeyamgi Numit’ (Public day) a monthly public forum where grievances can be highlighted to the CM directly and have it addressed, ‘Go to Hills’ mission, ‘Go to Village’ mission, ‘Chief Ministergi Hakselgi Tengbang’, CMST, a health assistance scheme for the poor and the mission to uplift the qualities of government school, ‘School Phagathanshi’ are some of the people-centric moves of Biren Singh which have earned him accolades and grade him amongst the successful Chief Minister of India.

Despite his people-centric governance, dissidents complain to the style of governing of the incumbent Chief Minister, terming it dictatorial. The Chief Minister also faces criticism for not taking the party into confidence and even overlooking its interest. It is also well known that the relation between the Chief Minister and the BJP Manipur Pradesh president, Kshetrimayum Bhabananda Singh, who is also the sitting Rajya Sabha MP is not cordial. In fact, as the state unit president, Bhabananda threw in his weight behind the dissidents during their campaigns to oust Biren Singh from the Chief Minister’s post.

Kshetrimayum Bhabananda’s term as the sitting member of Rajya Sabha expires in April this year. Bhabananda Singh came to the Rajya Sabha winning the bypoll on 25th May 2017, securing 39 votes against Congress candidate, Elangbam Dwijamani Singh, who secured 21 votes, after the sudden demise of the Congress MP, Haji Abdul Salam in 2017. Considering Bhabananda had only 3 years left for the seat he filled, it was widely believed that he would be re-nominated for the Rajya Sabha seat.  However last-minute changes made all the difference. The BJP’s central election committee nominated titular king, Leishemba Sanajaoba as their candidate for the Rajya Sabha polls on Wednesday.

“Chief Minister, N Biren Singh had strongly pitted for the titular king, arguing that as the cultural head of the State the king is acceptable to both the hills and the valley,” revealed a senior functionary of the state BJP unit, requesting anonymity. “The party central leadership not only saw the king as the cementing factor between the hills and valley of the state but grabbed the bigger opportunity of making inroads in resolving the Meitei insurgency,” opined the party functionary.

While the government of India is well entrenched in negotiations with the Nagas, Kukis and Assamese armed insurgents under several instruments like ceasefire agreements and suspension of operations, the Meitei insurgents of Manipur have so far shunned all efforts for peaceful negotiation under the constitution of India. They argue that Manipur was an independent kingdom, forcefully annexed by India in 1949 and should be liberated.

With the king as a sitting member of the Indian Parliament, Manipur’s present political status as an Indian State would be reinforced, overshadowing the popular symbolic identity that the crown king of Manipur represents for the state as an Independent kingdom.

Given the multi-utility of the titular king as the MP of Rajya Sabha, the central election committee of the BJP readily accepted Leishemba Sanajaoba as the BJP’s candidate for the lone Manipur Rajya Sabha seat, relegating Bhabananda to the background.

The smile on the Manipur chief minister’s face on getting the titular king nominated as the BJP’s candidate for the Rajya Sabha was however short lived given the strong opposition from the several civil societies of Manipur, alleging a hidden agenda to erase Manipur’s glorious history as a sovereign kingdom.

Even though the Leishemba Sanajaoba has no political power as such, he nevertheless commands respect and reverence from the people of Manipur. The king continues to be the fountainhead of the State’s social, cultural and customary affairs. Needless to say, the crown king has over 2000 year history of independence with tremendous pride and glory associated with it.

Kiran Ningthoujam, publicity secretary of PUYA, a revivalist civil society of Manipur said that the decision of the titular king to accept the fallacious agenda of the central government is a challenge to the history of Manipur.  He went on to add that Manipur is among the few erstwhile sovereign nations with living Royal Palace in the world and the king’s decision has degraded the value of this identity and demeaned his stature.

President of Coalition for Indigenous Rights Campaign (CIRCA), Manipur, Somorendro Thokchom demanded that the king to abdicate his throne if he insist on contesting for the Rajya Sabha. CIRCA president further said that “when Manipur became a part of India in 1949, it lost its political sovereignty. However, the presence of a king signified that its cultural sovereignty was intact.” He said  that Leishemba Sanajaoba’s decision to become an MP under the banner of the BJP is a sign that Manipur is now going to lose its cultural sovereignty as well.

Initially, the 48-year-old Maharaja of Manipur was elated on being nominated by the BJP as their Rajya Sabha candidate and even termed it as a “gesture to show the amount of love the central leaders have for Manipur.” Now, sources within the royal family say the king is suffering depression bouts, following voices of protest against his foray into Indian politics.

According to a state intelligence reports, there is even an imminent threat to the king’s life from the proscribed armed outfits, who also evidently saw red in the king’s decision. As of now, ‘Chong-nga Bon’ or the royal palace is heavily guarded 24×7 and is likely to stay like that till voting for Manipur’s lone Rajya Sabha seat is over. Even the Manipur DGP has personally requested Sanajaoba to stay indoors and avoid interacting with the public or the media till 26th March, the day of the voting.

Leishemba Sanajaoba who has in the meantime expressed that if elected, he will take the opportunity to strengthen the royal legacy and serve the people, both in hills and valley of the state, is now believed to be even weighing options on whether to quit or stay. While he has categorically rejected the idea of him pulling out of the race for the Rajya Sabha MP seat, he has however reserved his final decision on whether he will assume responsibility as the MP even if elected.  Royal family sources say the king will consult the public when the time comes for him to take this crucial decision on 26th March.

Incidentally the king’s decision to join Indian politics came close on the heals of two separatist leaders, Yamben Biren and Narengbam Samarjit announced from London the formation of “Manipur government-in-exile” in London, calling themselves as representatives of Leishemba Sanajaoba, the king of Manipur. Immediately after the controversial announcement, Leishemba Sanajaoba distanced himself from the statement.

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