Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

While Manipur gut politics is extremely strong, its formal electoral politics is now a periodic carnival

Elections Results are Another Indication Manipur’s Electoral Politics is Yet to Acquire the Depth of its Grassroots Gut Level Politics

Two things are stark in the results from the elections to five state assemblies declared on March 10. One is that the BJP continues to hold sway in most of India, perhaps for different reasons in every state. The other truth is, the decimation of the Congress continues, not always by the BJP juggernaut but by other political parties as well. In states averse to the BJP, such as Punjab and Bengal, other parties have stepped in to complete the coup de grace. The AAP was left to accomplish this task in Punjab this time, obliterating the Congress from one of its remaining bastions.

Much has been written about the outcomes in states other than Manipur leaving little more post mortem analysis to be done, or if there are, there will be no death of writers who are not only intimate with issues in these states but have been following them very closely as well. I will therefore take on the Manipur election results and how it came to be what it was as I comprehended it instinctively as someone for whom the state is his home, but equally from what I have learned from numerous interactions with the state’s intelligentsia as well as people in practically every walk of life, weighing their options to find a candidate, or party, they can affiliate their loyalty with in the heady months and weeks that preceded the actual polling dates, February 28 and March 5.

This election would probably rank as one of the most violent if not the most violent the state has seen in its entire electoral history since it became a full-fledged state of the Indian Union in 1972. Alarmingly, what were witnessed during the run up to the polling days were not fisticuffs between passionate supporters of the chief rivals but often involved lethal firearms violence. This ought not to be cause merely for alarm but questioning by the public as to how this became possible, given the fact that there were mandatory notices not long after the election dates were announced for all licensed guns to be deposited at respective district commissioner’s offices for safekeeping. Were all licensed guns not deposited, if not, should there not be penalties? Or was it a case of there being too many illegal unlicensed guns floating around? Probably the story is a combination of both, and both tell of an atrocious lawlessness.

More on this later, but first let me tackle the question of what it was that made the BJP come out on top despite the many crises of overweight, overconfidence and policy paralysis the party faced in the months ahead of the election. Also, and even more intriguingly, what was it that the Congress, which had begun showing a rare show of confidence and composure ahead of the election despite the existential crisis it has had to be fighting because of betrayal by its leaders and legislators. Of the 28 legislators it had at the start of the last Assembly, it had only 12 left by this election, largely because of defection to the ruling BJP.

BJP’s success was foretold. As the ruling party in the State, and more importantly at the Centre, almost all observers had predicted they would be the favourites to win even though weakened by internal strife. Particularly painful for the party must have been the exodus of party ticket hopefuls when they lost in the ticket race. Our own calculation on election eve was, the party was capable of winning as much as 35 but could go as low as 17. Read here

If not for this outward migration, probably the party’s performance would have been far better. The problem was, in the name of crippling its arch rival Congress and to please their national leaders by putting up a show of contributing to the BJP’s declared national mission of erasing the Congress from India altogether, the state BJP kept on absorbing Congress defectors, even to the extent of creating disenchantment amongst its own home grown leaders, and this blew up at the time of ticket distribution.

The BJP’s other problem was its incapability of saying anything substantial on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, even when it resurfaced as a hot social issue in the wake of the Oting massacre by the Para Commandos in Nagaland Mon district on December 4. Ostensibly, since the Central government was taking a tough stance on not repealing of this draconian Act, the state BJP was unable to say anything to please the local public. Indeed when it released its manifesto barely a week before the election date, the AFSPA question was missing altogether. Read here

Why then did the BJP do well despite what had seemed to be grave threats to its prospects. On the first, the answer is simple. Had the outward migration not happened and the BJP vote bank remained secure to the end, the party’s tally would probably have been much higher but even after their departure, their score was still good enough. Most of the 6 seats the Janata Dal (United) bagged and some of what the NPP won, would probably have been in the BJP kitty, bringing up its total to possibly 40 plus as the party vaunted all along.

The second is more intriguing, and deserves a deeper analysis. Not just in Manipur, but also in the rest of the Northeast, very often people are fiercely opposed to certain policies of the government, but when it comes to voting, they still vote for the ruling party which either were responsible for the very policy they oppose or else openly ignored their opposition to it. Nowhere was this demonstrated louder than in the Assam Assembly election 2021. Almost the entire population rose in opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act, CAA, with civil society leaders like Akhil Gogoi getting jailed over it and in turn acquiring iconic status in the Assamese society, yet, when the state assembly election was held in its wake, contrary to expectations the CAA would define the tone and tenure of the mandate, the BJP which sponsored and literally bulldozed its way in Parliament to get this become an Act, was voted back to power overwhelmingly.

Something of this is what Manipur witnessed in the recent election. As already described, not much ahead of the election, the AFSPA had come out of the back burner to occupy prime space in public consciousness. The Disturbed Area Act which predicates AFSPA, lapsed in Manipur on November 30, but the government did not immediately extend it, probably not wanting to annoy the public on election eve. Then the Oting indicent happened on December 4, and this further heightened passions against AFSPA. However, when the Centre government showed no sign it was willing to withdraw the act even amongst the public outrage, the BJP government in Manipur finally, in order not to displease their central leaders, extended the DAA and AFSPA on January 8 with retrospective effect from December 1. But probably in a dilemma not to also displease the public ahead of the election, not only was this extension done quietly, but the BJP held back releasing its manifesto till about a week from the election, for unlike all other parties in contention, the manifesto made no mention of AFSPA.

The moot point is, AFSPA, is one of those grievances the people of the state and indeed the entire Northeast share. Yet, AFSPA and other similar hot issues seldom have had any tangible impact on the state’s electoral politics.

This brings to mind another very important attribute of the Manipur society. Nobody can doubt or dispute that the state is far from being apolitical. It does have very strong grassroot gut politics, and should anybody, including the government do anything that is seen to run against the core interest of the state and its people, there will be mayhem in the streets. Civil society organisations, both established ones as well as instantly formed ones, in the hills as well as in the valley, will spring alive to challenge the policies they see as detrimental. In all likelihood, if these struggles become protracted, they will also throw up new street fighting leaders and icons. Examples are plenty. Just to cite a few: the agitation for district status for Sadar Hills; the agitation against the creation of seven new districts by bifurcating existing districts; the agitation for more autonomy for the hills; agitation against the AFSPA by Irom Sharmila; Pebam Chittaranjan’s self-immolation protesting Manipur’s loss of independence; and indeed, the many underground militant movements for sovereignty are evidence of this political attribute of the people.

The sad thing is, the energy evident in this gut level street politics have never been successful sublimated and prepared for transition to the formal electoral politics where leaders are decided by the ability of contestants to get themselves elected and not solely by calibre as in the former. Since winning election is all that is needed to qualify to be a leader, politicians of today concentrate only on mastering the technics of winning elections, which is increasingly becoming the ability to buy or else coerce voters to vote for them.

I have no doubt that the minute this raw energy of Manipur’s street fighting politics is successfully sublimated and allowed to transition to the formal electoral politics, there will be the likelihood of a strong regional political force, rich and deep beyond expectation. Till then, electoral politics in Manipur will remain the carnival it has become, in which voters come out to make some quick pocket money, betraying in the process a cynicism that see electoral politics as just a formality and not one meant to change lives, much less steer the state towards a peaceful and prosperous future.

There is yet another interesting social insight thrown up by this round of Manipur election. This in many ways is seen in one aspect of the defeat of the Congress. The Congress leadership rank from what it was at the end of the last election in 2017, when it emerged as the single largest party with 28 seats, was already decimated by the time of Manipur went to the polls again in 2022. Of its 28 MLAs, there were only 12 left to contest on the party’s ticket, the rest and more having joined the ruling BJP to look for greener pastures. Yet, in the run up to the election, the party showed a rare sense of composure and confidence. It was among the first to release its list of candidates without waiting to pick from BJP leftovers. It indulged little in slanging matches with rivals. It was again amongst the earliest to release its election manifesto. It had appeared it was interested in just going about its own business without looking at what others were doing.

Yet the party lost miserably, bagging only 5 seats, though in some others they lost by very narrow margins. So what exactly happened. One of these has to do with its past and quite ironically it had to do with the way it waged its war against insurgents. In the hills, the blocking of Th. Muivah’s visit to the state in May 2010 under its watch disenchanted the Nagas. In the valley, the campaign of eliminating insurgent suspects in 1528 recorded cases, again under the party’s watch, left deep wounds amongst the public. The BJP was quick to see this, especially the latter, and took advantage of it to the hilt, continually hammering on the policy’s brutality in its campaign.

The irony is, a state is expected to fight and overcome any military challenges to it. But the peculiar thing about insurgency is, these militant movements are rooted in the societies they spawn from. They are in Frantz Fanon’s words in his The Wretched of the Earth “mailed fists” of the society. Hence, though in any protracted insurgency, no matter how much the people have grown disenchanted with the insurgents, when government campaigns go too far, the hurt begin to be felt by the people themselves, after all those eliminated would be a son, a daughter, a friend, a neighbour’s son etc. The hard lesson for the Congress, and for everybody fighting insurgency then is, tackling insurgency will have to be nuanced for there cannot be a pure military solution to the problem. While the military approach cannot be abandoned altogether, the challenge is to balance this with an effort to reach a political resolution. The first step in this is to acknowledge the political nature of these troubles, and that they are not just a law and order challenge.

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