This report was written as part of the NL Sena project of the Newslaundry media group sponsored by its readers and patrons to cover the 2022 Assembly election in five states. The original story can be read here
Given the turmoil in the BJP after the announcement of its candidates list, there is no gainsaying that the result can swing in the Congress’s favour
By the rule of thumb, small Northeast states like Manipur normally tend to lean towards the party in power at the centre. A myth or an understanding, if you like – that only if the governing party in the state is the same as in the centre, flows of the state’s fund and other benefits from the centre would have no obstacle – has come to be embedded in the subconscious of these places.
Without spelling it out openly, this is also the psychology prime minister Narendra Modi played on during his official visit to Manipur on January 4, when he said a twin engine developmental vehicle is best suited for Manipur. This was an indirect nudge to the state to return the Bharatiya Janata Party to power in the two-phase state assembly election, polling for which is scheduled on February 27 and March 3.
This advantage notwithstanding, in the past fortnight or so, it has become quite stark that the BJP cannot take things for granted. After dithering all this while, much to the growing impatience of those vying for its ticket and their supporters, the BJP’s list of approved candidates was finally released yesterday, barely a week away from the deadline for filing nominations – February 8 for the constituencies falling within first phase polling, and February 11 for the second phase polling.
This is also long after all other major contenders have released their lists, though they too have left some to be filled, probably to leave room to take in a few who do not make the BJP list.
In the fortnight that went by, there have been several leaks of what were thought to be the BJP’s candidates lists through social media, but each of them ended up disowned by the party’s authorities. Whether these leaks were deliberate decoys to test the waters or yet another indication of growing indiscipline within the party is not known. What is, however, increasingly visible is the unease of the party. Its headquarters at Imphal is now under tight security cordon, ostensibly for fear of violent storming by sections of its own workers loyal to putative candidates ignored by the party.
As anticipated, by the end of day after the release of the BJP list, social media became rife with news of explosive anger from different parts of the state, in particular the valley districts. Many BJP workers went on the rampage on the streets when the names of the candidates they supported were discovered missing from the list. News of several of the rejected candidates joining other parties and swearing they would continue the fight also started doing the rounds – precisely the scenario the BJP had feared and for which official declaration of its candidates was delayed.
Much of this predicament is the BJP’s own making. In the five years the party was in power in the state, one of the major self-chosen yardsticks it was wont to flaunting as its achievement has been its success in causing the depletion of the ranks of opposition parties, in particular the Congress, echoing subserviently the familiar irreverent slogan of the party’s central command of erasing the Congress party from India altogether.
In the last assembly election in February 2017, the Congress incidentally had emerged as the single largest party with 28 MLAs in the 60-member house, but was unable to form the government despite needing the support of only three outside MLAs to make it to the majority mark. The then governor, Najma Heptulla, had a great role in this, for she broke convention and chose to have the BJP which won only 21 seats to prove majority first by forming a post poll alliance, which the latter did.
Thereafter, power made all the difference in the internal cohesion of the different parties. The BJP, which literally snatched power from the jaws of defeat, acquired a new clout while the Congress, which lost the race, rather unfairly, was not only left to lick its wounds, but also soon began showing signs of losing its hold on its MLAs. Many fell to the lure of power and shifted loyalty towards the BJP, quite atrociously without ever attracting penalty under the 10th Schedule. On several occasions, this prompted the intervention of the Supreme Court to enforce that the house speaker, Yumnam Khemchand, played by rule of law and disqualified these defectors.
Congress base erosion
Even with the saving grace of court intervention, the overall picture was that of a one-way bloodbath in which the assembly’s retributive mechanism for defection was used in a grossly partisan manner to mow down the opposition, which effectively meant the Congress. At last count, just before the election notification was announced, the Congress had only 13 of its original 28 MLAs left in its fold. The rest had either been disqualified or else resigned.
Not only this, there have also been other important Congress leaders apart from the MLAs who shifted affiliation to the BJP camp. This included Govindas Konthoujam, a sitting MLA and president of the Manipur Pradesh Congress Committee, and Oinam Nabakishore Singh, the Congress candidate for one of the state’s two Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 general election. He lost, and joined the BJP in October 2020. Interestingly, both Konthoujam and Singh belong to the same assembly constituency, with the former bagging the BJP ticket. The latter will, in all probability, migrate elsewhere.
On its part, the BJP welcomed all its new entrants with fanfare, making them media spectacles. To a certain extent, these inductions of old political hands from other parties was prudent. The BJP is relatively new in the state and had never been in power till after the last election. It therefore lacked political stalwarts to give it either a sense or a face of stability. The migration of known faces from the Congress – a party which has been in power for the most number of years in the state, all of whom are commanding entrenched support bases as well – was seen as a necessary strategy to fill this vacuum in the governing party.
When teased during TV discussions that the state BJP was beginning to look like the Congress in a different guise, BJP spokespersons had dismissed this saying they invited none, but the party’s doors were always open to those attracted by its ideology.
Hubris is blind to flaws in the self indeed. Shakespeare, and Sophocles before him, told us all about this. To the disinterested observer, it comes as a surprise that anybody would have missed the point that those who make these shifts in political affiliation would have little thoughts of ideology, and that what gravitated them to the governing dispensation was the lure of power alone.
They flock to where they think power is, in the hope that they too would be given a handle to power, and the party ticket to contest election is the initiating point of actualising this ambition. All prominent faces who joined the BJP from the Congress and a few other parties were in contention for the BJP tickets, throwing up a scenario in which there were several contenders for each BJP ticket to the 60 constituencies.
Riding on a sense of superiority at domineering over the Congress, snatching their MLAs almost at will, the BJP till the last hour turned a blind eye to the problem it was allowing to incubate within its core. And now, the party is having to confront the monster undisguised. There can be no easy escape, and the first challenge before the party, if it hopes to retain power, would be to weather this storm.
Since Manipur’s politics is hardly defined by ideology, if and when these men and women leave the BJP to join other parties, they can also easily take away the same supporters they brought with them to the BJP. Just as the politicians here are, by and large, ideology free, the same can be said of a greater part of the electorate.
There is another layer of disenchantment within the BJP that the party would have to answer. The party is new but resourceful and it could contest all 60 seats in the last election, unlike most new entrants. Though only 21 of them were ultimately victorious at the hustings, the fact remains that all 60 constituencies now have local BJP leaders. Regardless of their electoral fortunes the first time, they would be considering themselves as legitimate inheritors of the party’s legacies and favours.
Unfortunately for many of them, fresh entrants from the Congress have supplanted the positions they obviously would have felt was their privilege. If left unaddressed, this problem too can further erode the BJP’s support base. In the commotion after the announcement of the BJP’s candidates list, the signs indicate that this erosion is already beginning to happen.
Birth of mercenary politics
There are other older layers of discontent. This has to do with the circumstances under which the BJP government was installed in 2017.
As mentioned before, the then governor Najma Heptulla played a big part in this. She broke the convention of resolving a hung assembly situation by giving the BJP – which needed the support of 10 more outside MLAs to reach the majority mark – the first preference to prove majority in the house, after rejecting the claim of the Congress which needed the support of just three outside MLAs that they deserved the first chance.
In such a situation, the convention is for parties in pre-poll alliance commanding a majority to be given the first chance, then the single largest party, and then the next largest etc, in the belief this order will provide the most stable government, apart from preventing political loyalty trading to the extent possible. This is also common sense, for the more the number of parties needed to clobber together to reach the majority mark, the less unstable the formation is likely to be, and the more the likelihood of horse-trading too.
The BJP did manage to rope in the support of all other non-Congress MLAs and, quite confoundingly, one Congress MLA too to reach the majority mark – but at a huge price. All these parties obviously bargained and extracted their pounds of flesh in terms of cabinet berths.
The Congress MLA who joined the BJP ranks from the start was not disqualified for crossing the floor and was instead rewarded with a cabinet berth. The National People’s Party, which won four seats, managed to garner cabinet berths for all four of its MLAs. The Naga People’s Front, which also won four seats, had to be given two ministerial berths. There was also a lone Lok Janshakti Party MLA, and he too received a cabinet berth.
This left just four cabinet berths, including the chief minister, for the BJP, as the 10th Schedule stipulates a cabinet ceiling of 12 for small states like Manipur.
Fortunately for the BJP, many of its MLAs in 2017 were young first-timers, just happy to be part of the winning team. Foretold in the situation, however, was that after the initial euphoria of victory wore down, there would be trouble. Here were MLAs who won on BJP tickets made to remain as no more than ordinary legislators while entrants from other parties were ministers in the government their party led.
This discontent did cause many problems for the BJP government along the way. In June 2020, it almost brought the government down. The party was only saved by the proverbial whisker by the assembly speaker’s partisan application of the 10th Schedule and its disqualification provisions.
To accommodate and appease BJP legislators left in the lurch, 12 parliamentary secretary posts of cabinet rank had also to be created. But this also led to disqualification challenges from the opposition in an “office of profit” case that was inconclusive for almost the entire five-year term, again because governor Heptulla sat on the file seeking her opinion on the matter.
Najma Heptulla’s legacy
There is one more long-term consequence of governor Heptulla’s decision. She has clearly introduced a negative incentive for young entrants in the political arena of Manipur, making it look far better for them to win a seat from a smaller party in the likelihood of a hung assembly.
If a fresh politician were to win their seat from one of the established parties, their chances of clinching a cabinet berth was slim as there would be many party stalwarts in the queue ahead of them. However, as 2017 has demonstrated, in a hung assembly situation, smaller parties which cannot hope to reach the majority mark on their own can still play king-makers and join the coalition that promises them the choicest pound of flesh.
The proliferation of smaller parties has expectedly generated a vicious cycle. These parties come into the fray to take advantage of a hung situation and, in turn, their proliferation has also increased the likelihood of a hung verdict. This being so, this extremely fragmented political arena in which political loyalties are up for sale at the end of an election may have already been institutionalised, and probably will be decades before it is rid of.
Thus, in the forthcoming Manipur assembly election, the seeds of mercenary politics that Heptulla sowed is likely to show up in full blossom. Several small parties are reaping a harvest of migrants from the BJP’s stock of candidate hopefuls. Even without these migrants, many of them were anyway attracting winnable new entrants.
Although no election result is absolutely predictable, what can be said of Manipur using very broad parameters is that the BJP, as the governing party in the state and the centre, should start with an advantage. But nobody can write off the Congress as yet. The party has its stalwarts, along with a firmly rooted support base it can depend on. On election eve, the party is exhibiting a rare show of composure and confidence, and was the first to come out with its list of candidates. It has also so far denied entry to prodigals returning from the BJP.
Given the current turmoil in the BJP, and if the BJP is unable to stem the tide, there is no gainsaying that the result can swing in the Congress’s favour.
Moreover, the Congress has also formed a pre-poll alliance with the left parties, and Manipur has a left front base built on the legacy of Hijam Irabot, a widely revered Communist leader of the pre-independence era. In recent years, left parties have not been able to win seats but their vote banks remain respectable and, given the right mobilisation, can expand too.
But if neither the BJP nor the Congress are able to pull off a single party majority, then of course the most likely scenario will be the political auction of the 2017 kind yet again.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author