The Congress government in Manipur led by Okram Ibobi Singh suffered a jolt on November 24, when the results of the by-elections to two assembly constituencies were announced. But this, perhaps, is not as bad for the party as many have made it out to be. Although the BJP won both the seats, it may not be an indication of a BJP wave, as many are enthusiastically calling. One or two basic facts will explain this. The two seats of Thongju and Thangmeiband were not held by the Congress before they became vacant on account of the disqualification of their representatives under the Anti-Defection Law. Therefore, in terms of numbers, the Congress lost nothing, although it must be said, in terms of morale, they lost miserably because it was not any other party but its arch rival, the BJP, which won.
These seats had gone to the Trinamool Congress in the last assembly election in February 2012, and the same candidates, Thongam Biswajit Singh and Khumukcham Joykishan won the seats again in these by-elections, this time on BJP tickets.
Again, in Manipur politics, it is well known that personality and individual resources of candidates matter as much as, if not more, than party clout. This is one reason why independent candidates are still a factor at the time of government formation. This being the case, the electoral results this time may well also be interpreted as the victory of the candidates rather than the BJP. They won three years ago as Trinamool candidates and they have won as BJP candidates this time. It remains to be seen if they can hold on to their respective constituencies a year-and-a-half later in 2017, when the term of the current Assembly expires.
Thus, to attribute these victories to any major change in voters’ party preference could be illusory. All the same, it is perfectly justified for the BJP to feel elated that it has at last opened its account in the Manipur Assembly, and for the Congress to be worried that despite being the party in power, it could not garner these two seats in the contest by secret ballot.
What could have worked in favour of the BJP to some extent is that voters in small and cash-strapped North-east states like Manipur generally feel safer to be on the side of the party in power at the Centre. But this was not the sole deciding factor. It is also common knowledge that votes in Manipur are bought with hard cash, and candidates end up spending large amounts at every election.
This perhaps explains how the profile of political leadership in the state has transformed so radically in the past three or four decades. Two or three generations ago, politics was dominated by former school teachers who were highly respected in their local communities. Most of the political leaders of the 1970s and 1980s hence were actually referred to as Oja (teacher) for this reason. Retired bureaucrats then began entering into the political arena, having seen the administration from the inside, and having realised to their utter dismay that it was the politicians and not the bureaucrats who held the actual reins of state power. Most ended up toothless in their comfortable retirement postings.
Before long, as elections became progressively more expensive because of the culture of purchasing votes, the profile of representatives changed once again, bringing in government contractors with their loads of black money, earned through organised looting of the public exchequer in collaboration with those in power. Indeed, it would be difficult today to find a legislator with no contractor background. Unfortunately, this has meant the virtual exclusion of everybody else from entering the political arena. This has also had another significant impact. The more electoral politics discredited itself in this way, the more room was left for another brand of politics to emerge and take root. This has been one of Manipur’s and indeed much of the North-east’s endemic problems. The trouble is, this alternate politics, which normally is enmeshed inextricably with the communities at the grassroots, can get extremely radical and even destructive. It can manifest as street politics such as public rallies and bandhs, and in extreme cases, as violent insurrections. In fact, there have been scholars who likened the insurgencies in the North-east to Antonio Gramsci’s “counter hegemonies” that challenge the oppressive hegemonies of larger politics.
From this standpoint, Irom Sharmila, who has been on a hunger strike for more than 15 years now to demand the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958 (AFSPA), or the naked protest by elderly women demanding justice in the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama, the numerous street demonstrations in Manipur and other North-east states, and even the hardcore insurgents waging war against the establishment, are all spawned by the same skewed constituency created by the absence of moral legitimacy in formal politics. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, if politics too leaves any moral vacuum, there will be contenders to fill it. Insurgency in this sense has in many ways been a result of a loss of public faith in larger formal politics.
Tragically, there is today a clear dichotomy between established electoral politics and alternate politics that grow out of the grassroots. For instance, in election after election emotive issues like the status of the AFSPA hardly ever matter, whereas on the streets, people would come out risking life and limb to protest its continuance. Sharmila’s fast or Manorama’s death has not made any difference to the electoral fortunes of politicians, but they continue to capture the people’s imagination at the grassroots as the symbol of their collective suffering and fortune.
Sharmila’s fast or Manorama’s death has not made any difference to the electoral fortunes of politicians, but they continue to capture the people’s imagination at the grassroots as the symbol of their collective suffering and fortune.
The inference is, for any realistic solution to the disturbed condition in Manipur and the North-east, the approach would first and foremost have to bridge this dichotomy between the two politics. The responsibility lies with the formal brand of politics to strive to regain its lost moral legitimacy by reforming itself and feeling the pulse of the people as the alternate brands of politics do. This cannot ever happen if politics is left to looters of public money and black marketeers.
The recent by-election in Manipur has also raised the question of what the BJP’s fortune would be in the 2017 Assembly elections. Can it usurp power from the ruling Congress which has been in power for three consecutive terms? Past records may help find an answer. The BJP has managed to open its account in the Manipur State Assembly only twice. First with four seats in the 60-member house during the peak of Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Prime Ministership, when the “India Shining” campaign swept the country. The second time was after Tuesday’s declaration of results to the by-elections.
In 2017, if the BJP does make a bigger entry into the Assembly, it will be solely on account of the fact the party is in power at the Centre and the people here may imagine it to be in their interest to align with party. Even if the BJP does come to have a bigger presence in the Assembly, it will not indicate any change of heart of the electorate with regard to the party’s ideology. Just one piece of evidence should be sufficient to qualify this assessment: In the predominantly Hindu valley districts of the state, amidst all the vile campaigns against beef eaters elsewhere in the country, Muslim butchers still openly and without any worry continue with their businesses.
Pradip Phanjoubam is editor, Imphal Free Press. He has written extensively on North-east issues for various publications. His book on "North-east Question: Conflicts and Frontiers" written as a fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, published by Routledge is due to be released in December.