A FORMER footballer, Nongthongbam Biren Singh has scored a goal, deflecting past his former captain in the Congress, in his post-sports political career, and a current teammate in the BJP by emerging as the saffron party’s chief minister-designate for Manipur. For long a close aide to outgoing CM Okram Ibobi Singh of the Congress, Biren, 56, was a minister in the Ibobi Singh cabinet in an earlier term, and was the party’s state unit spokesperson till recently. He joined the BJP about six months ago.
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Biren’s popularity with other MLAs may have swung the vote in his favour after a round of hectic lobbying between him and party favourite Bishwajit Singh in the hours since the election results were announced on Saturday. Bishwajit has now been made general secretary of BJP.
The founder-editor of popular Manipuri newspaper ‘Thoudan’, Biren fought his first election in 2002 as an Independent candidate from Heingang constituency. He won, and Heingang, in Imphal East district, has been his home constituency since. Ibobi Singh, a three-term CM, sought him out. Biren initially supported the Congress from the outside, and eventually joined the party. He fought, and won, on a Congress ticket in 2007 and 2012.
But differences appeared between Manipur’s two senior Congress leaders over the last few years. Party insiders say Ibobi Singh had earlier averted a coup led by Biren. Last year, he had reportedly threatened to leave the Congress, taking along with him 20 MLAs, when Ibobi delayed a reshuffle in the Cabinet and in Congress Legislative Party.
Biren was subsequently made the party vice-president and spokesperson.
In the last 48 hours, as the contest with Bishwajit played out in BJP, Biren’s long stint in the Congress, and his proximity with many leaders in his former party, is believed to have tilted the scales in his favour. He is seen to have brought over two key players to BJP and secured the party’s victory — Congress MLA Nemcha Kipgen, seen as a strong player for Kuki votes in the newly formed Kanpokpi district, and Vungzaglin Valte from Churachandpur, another seat with tribal vote bank. Both leaders seconded the proposal to make Biren the CM.