Manipur’s fate hangs between two flamboyant Meitei leaders – Ibobi and Biren Singh

N. Biren Singh, the incumbent Chief Minister of Manipur, is obviously in news in the election season.

Talking about the poll scenes in the northeastern state, an obvious question being asked is – Why Manipur sneezes when Delhi freezes?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s oft-repeated phrase ‘duble engine’ makes a lot of sense.

To be in power in Delhi and also in Imphal gives one immense advantage. Anti-incumbency would work against the BJP, but not to the extent of damaging the prospects of Chief Minister N. Biren Singh of making a return to power. But he has perhaps overestimated the BJP’s and his prospects and has decided to contest alone in all the 60 seats, which will go to the polls in two phases, on February 28 and March 5.

The target is a fairly ambitious 40 seats. It would be a quantum leap from its 2017 tally of 21.

In the process, two of its allies — NPP and NPF — were shown the door. The ‘regional sentiment’ has been hurt and now many in the state say the saffron party may fall below half-way mark of 30 and will need the support of regional parties and even Independents.

Signboard parties in Manipur like the Janata Dal (United), Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), Kuki People’s Alliance and even not so serious contender Trinamool Congress are keeping their fingers crossed and waiting in the wings to make it big if a fractured mandate throws up a hung Assembly.

Five years back, with a modest four seats, the NPP of Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma had bargained hard for the deputy chairman’s post and ministership for all four. Nothing suits a hang Assembly or Parliament than these smaller parties.

In 1996, such was the scenario in the Lok Sabha. The late Pramod Mahajan took a potshot at then Law Minister Ramakhant Khalap, saying, “Mr Speaker Sir, I told a Chinese delegation I am from the single largest party, I am in the opposition and Mr Khalap is the only man of his party in the 543-member House; and he is the government.”

A decade later in Jharkhand, coalition politics had taken a curious turn when an Independent legislator became the Chief Minister.

However, it is to be noted that Madhu Koda was the third Independent legislator to assume the office of Chief Minister of a state. The two others before him were Bishwanath Das in then Orissa wayback in 1971 and Flinder Anderson Khonglam in Meghalaya in 2002.

But the Meitei assertion in Manipur polls and local people’s faith in the leadership of Congress stalwart O. Ibobi Singh and BJP’s Biren Singh deserves a modest debate.

Out of an estimated 23-24 lakh population in the state, there would be about 13 lakh Meitei Hindus and 1,67,000 Meitei Muslims.

When it comes to territorial integrity of Manipur, obviously this issue is actually close to every Meitei’s heart. Even Muslim Meiteis back Chief Minister Biren Singh in his “continuous fight” for Manipur’s territorial integrity.

In the past, Ibobi Singh was the ‘crusader and protector’ of that ‘Meitei right’. Now it is the turn of Biren Singh of the BJP.

In fact, in 2019, it was the Manipur Chief Minister who had taken a delegation to Home Minister Amit Shah and convinced that nothing should be assured to Naga insurgents before taking his state into confidence.

For days there were protests and violence in the valley areas as there was an apprehension that Naga insurgent group NSCN (IM) may get away with some major concessions ‘within the state of Manipur’.

The NSCN (IM) is a strong outfit of hundreds of Tangkhul Naga cadres and this community has sizable presence in Ukhrul and adjoining areas of Manipur.

For his part, former Congress CM Ibobi (73) has already crossed his prime. He was best at winning three subsequent elections for the Congress, including in 2012, and ruled the state for 15 years.

Political observers know Ibobi’s flamboyant style of functioning. He knew the art of giving tough times even to his own party colleagues when UPA was in power in Delhi.

In 2010, the then Home Minister P. Chidambaram reportedly agreed to allow Naga rebel leader Thuingaleng Muivah to visit his native village Somdal in Manipur’s hilly region. Accordingly, Ibobi was asked to handle the matter cautiously and was precisely asked to handle the ‘Meitei sentiment’ as this section always sees the Naga movement as a major move to change the geography of the state.

In Delhi, Ibobi agreed and said he will facilitate Muivah’s visit.

But back in Manipur, Ibobi played to the hilt the Meitei card secretly and sabotaged Muivah’s visit to his native village in Ukhrul district. This of course strengthened Ibobi’s grip in state politics.

But probably some Congress leaders are yet to forget and forgive Ibobi for this. Ibobi is nevertheless getting all the importance now from the Congress leadership. Recently, he even defended Congress’ alliance with the Left parties.

Among other issues, the BJP hopes to cash in on the decline in long bandhs and blockades in the state.

Of course, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal charisma will always give benefits to the BJP.

Among the projects inaugurated and launched by Modi on January 4 at the state capital Imphal is the landmark steel bridge built over Barak River.

The project will fulfil the long awaited demands of the people and henceforth the traffic congestion along the National Highway 37 will be reduced. This will ensure a seamless year-round connectivity between Imphal and Silchar in Assam’s Cachar district.

The road link to Imphal at present is via Kohima in Nagaland and commuters and truckers are often faced with different kinds of challenges.

In terms of anecdotes related to election statistics, two things have surfaced in Manipur.

Biren Singh’s son-in-law R.K. Imo is the BJP candidate in the Sagolband Assembly constituency. Imo is also the the son of former Chief Minister late R.K. Jaichandra Singh, but more importantly Imo had joined the BJP only in November 2021 and in defiance of the saffron party’s not-to-promote dynasty (parivar-vad) politics, he has been given the ticket happily.

Imo has total assets worth of over Rs 5 crore, as per the affidavit submitted by him, whereas Chief Minister Biren Singh’s election affidavit has shown one-fifth assets to what his son-in-law has — Rs 1,08,46,392.98.

Ibobi Singh is also ‘poorer’ than his son. While the dad has total assets amounting to Rs 1,88,92,790.66, his son Surjakumar, according to the affidavit, has assets valued at over Rs 2 crore.

Surjakumar is the sitting MLA of Khangabok Assembly segment while Ibobi is the Congress nominee yet again from Thoubal.

In 2017, the BJP’s vote share in Manipur had risen from a negligible 1.3 per cent in 2012 to 36.3 per cent.

No doubt, there was an increase in the number of seats to 21 from zero.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist. He is also the author of books, ‘The Talking Guns: North East India’ and ‘Modi to Moditva: An Uncensored Truth’.)




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