Dialogue  January-March, 2007, Volume 8  No. 3

North-East Scan

Manipur Votes for Moderation

Pradip Phanjoubam*

The verdict of the Manipur electorate in the just concluded election to the 9th Manipur Legislative Assembly was emphatically for a moderation of the brand of extreme politics that has become the state’s staple. Even the ultimate winner the Congress, which was just one short of the simple majority of 31 in the House of 60, was taken by surprise, for everybody, including the party itself, was expecting a hung Assembly where the Congress would be the single largest party.

A Congress government has now been sworn in with Okram Ibobi Singh as the chief minister again for the second consecutive term. The government will also be by the same partnership between the Congress and the CPI, the Secular Progressive Front (SPF), with the CPI with four MLAs this time throwing its weight behind the Congress. In addition, the NCP with five MLAs and JDS with three have also extended support to the government.

This will effectively leave two arch rivals, occupying opposite poles on the issues of Naga integration and Manipur integrity, the UNC sponsored independent MLAs who had earlier formed a pre-poll alliance called United Naga Democratic Front, UNDF and the MPP, sharing the opposition benches. The former returned six MLAs while the latter five. There are four more independents, and three of them have already pledged support to the government.

The election results indeed were virtual referendums on one or two very important issues in the state. One of these was the Naga integration issue, pushed with desperation by the United Naga Council, UNC. The fact is, when the secret ballot is the means of deciding the issue, the verdict is not exactly against the interest of Manipur integrity. Although UNC sponsored candidates won six seats, the breakup is revealing. They received the worst drubbings in Tamenglong and Chandel. Again while they swept all three seats in Ukhrul, they won only one of three in Senapati, one of three in Tamenglong and one of two in Chandel.

In Tamenglong, a candidate, Khangthuanang Panmei, who was most vocal against the UNC’s campaign and was kidnapped and forces to sign his resignation from the race by the NSCN(IM), was voted the winner. In Chandel, the UNC campaign led to the unification of the Kukis under a single banner enabling Thangkholun Haokip to wrest away this traditional Naga constituency. Another traditional Naga constituency in the same district, Tengnoupal, nearly fell to the same phenomenon.

It was also clear the people wanted to decide their own future through free choice on other important question of a complete and unconditional repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA.

The parties that went hammer-and-tong to attack and demand its unconditional removal, most particularly the MPP, received a spanking from the electorate. This supposedly resurrected regional party could manage only five seats.

Instead, it is the moderated stance of the Congress, which said the draconian Act would be removed but conditionally, which got this verdict. The Congress earlier even had actually blocked a House resolution to have the Act removed, and yet the people have voted them back.

The electoral victories on these issues do not however mean these matters have been settled once and for all. For electoral results are decided not just by any single factor. Moreover, Manipur elections are not always a total and conclusive reflection of either the real feelings or political inclinations of the people.

A very obvious example should illustrate. Manipur is known for women power. At grassroots level politics, such as those we get to see on our streets or at the Panchayat level politics, they are always in the forefront. And yet, in the formal electoral politics, they are nowhere. In the just concluded Assembly elections for instance, there were only 10 women in contest, and it is even more telling that none of them won. There is in this sense a gap between gut level politics and the formal electoral politics.

Let nobody be swayed then by these results totally and come to believe a lid has been put on the dissenting passions that drove the opposition to the AFSPA or the Naga integration question. At best, the verdict for the middle path walkers Congress could be treated as an indicator the way ahead is the path of moderation, and that there is plenty of discursive room to work on for amicable and consensual solutions to many of the state’s vexing problems.

The winners would also do well to remember that if the vote were to be on real issues that impact the common man most, such as the scarcity of treated piped water, perennial load shedding, piling garbage on busy roadsides, rising unemployment, dropping incomes etc, it would have been dumped.

Challenges Ahead

Hence, while the Congress deserves a big Congratulation, let the party and its stalwarts be reminded that it won because of a counter wave against the strong winds of extreme and often sectarian politics that was beginning to blow in the state, and not because of any appreciation of its performance in the past term.

In a way it is good that the Congress has won this round regardless of its performance as a government in the last term, for it was the only party that could reach all sides of the communal divides in the state. It even broke into the strongly stockaded United Naga Council’s fortress, openly defended by various categories of workers and patrons, including heavily armed ones.

On the other side, it decimated the strong challenge from the Manipur People’s Party in the valley, a party which in its new incarnation has assumed a somewhat Meitei face, quite unlike what it was in its initial years of formation, having thrown up a Naga and a Muslim chief minister from among its leaders. For the Congress then, it is time to get into good governance mode and set about the onerous task of improving the quality of everyday life in the state.

It is unlikely the UNC can be persuaded into getting out of the confines of Naga-ism, hence let it be left to its own designs. However, it ought to remind itself sectarian politics evokes equal and opposite reactions. The Chandel and Tamenglong lessons are there before everybody. Illiberal democracy splits up the society along sectarian lines, and the kind of political game it is playing can be dangerous for everybody, including itself.

For the MPP, there is plenty of advice to offer. If it improves its outlook, it can hold promise. First and foremost, it must get off the reactive mode and take up a more pro-active role. It must not belittle itself by conceiving itself as a foil to other sectarian players, and instead think in terms of consolidating itself as broad-based, broad thinking regional force, reaching out to all sections of the society.

If it must think of itself as a foil, its adversary must be other broad-based parties like the Congress. In two words, the motto it needs at this moment is, “Think Big”. The humiliating defeat it received this time may be a boon, for it would have staved off much of the unnecessary hot airs it went to the polls with, and now in humility it can reflect on what went wrong.

The big names who came together this time, and who were defeated, if they are sincere about their commitment to the party, have a big role to play. Maybe many of them would be too old by next election, but their effort must be to transform the party into a fountainhead perennially springing forth a new brand of leadership. If they manage to make the MPP a party for Manipur instead of what it is appearing to be today – a party for the Meiteis – they would have effectively turned defeat into victory.

Violence and Election

This is time also to look back, not only at the performance of parties, but at the process of the election itself. Something has gone terribly wrong and elections are no longer a sublimated process of determining the consensus of the people on who they want as their leaders and how they want to be governed.

Instead, increasingly it is a savage contest in which candidates and their supporters are willing to resort to lethal violence to grab power. The mayhem witnessed this round of elections in many constituencies, were not part of any larger political game-plan, but basic gangsterism.

Alarmingly, use of firearm has become a routine feature too. If unchecked, future elections can become virtual turf wars, and the distinction between politicians and mafias would narrow down further.

It is however not just the politicians to blame, but an emerging political culture which has made quick buck deal-makers become big stake holders in the election process. It is as if politics were a gamble (or business) in which contractors and other wheeler-dealers put in their bets on their choice horses in the expectation they would reap jackpots for the next five years.

A survey of those who have made the big quick bucks in the state in the last 10 years will reveal a majority are either close to men in the corridors of political power, or else to parallel underground power structures of which there is a proliferating number. Both these power poles are opposed to the black market, drug running etc, but neither has objection to their supporters doing dishonest businesses with the state, making illegal profit at the cost of the public exchequer.

The widespread talks of percentage cut from government contracts by the powers that be on either side, cannot be smoke without fire? Since many of these businesses are in the area of infrastructure building, the development works themselves have remained substandard, or else nonexistent in cases of the most blatant thievery. It is in this area of darkness tremendous unaccountable incomes are generated and thereby has become a hotly contested space.

What is also evident is, this phenomenon is much more widespread in the valley constituencies. For instance, if in the traditional Naga constituencies the script has been one of coercive politics in pushing parallel political gameplans, these constituencies have been relatively free of gangsterism with personal profit as motive, as is increasingly the case in many of the valley constituencies.

It is an unhealthy contractor-politician nexus which is at the roots of this. It will also be noted that in many cases, the politicians themselves were either former contractors or retired government functionaries who have made their own big bucks through the same route.

The prescription then is simpler said than done – de-link the nexus. That is to say, make the primary objective of politics be about mastering the art of good governance and not the mundane task of administrating the award of government contract jobs. This would also mean the criterion for awarding contract jobs must be on pure business considerations – get the best work done expending the least possible money. As of today, the primary objective of politics is to make money, and what better way to do this than on commissions earned on dishonest government contracts.


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati