Okram Ibobi Singh is Manipur’s longest serving chief minister, his rule spanning three terms over 15 years. A man of few words, he let his work do the talking all these years. But this election has been different. Up against the BJP, an unknown adversary which threatens to steal his development thunder, Singh has set himself a punishing campaign schedule, addressing rallies, roadside gatherings, meeting people like never before to ward off the threat.
Speaking on the sidelines of a rally in his constituency of Thoubal, Singh brushes aside any challenge: “The Congress is definitely coming to power.
There is no question of any other party coming to power in Manipur. There is no question of anti-incumbency or anything else. My government has done a lot for the state — in the power sector, health and education sectors — and the people of Manipur have really appreciated this.’’
But the worry shows. He has been visiting his constituency several times a week this past month and, according to aides, “connecting with people’’. A Congress insider says party workers, including those in Thoubal, are somewhat disillusioned with his leadership.
“It is true that the Chief Minister faces some resistance in Thoubal itself. That is why he has been making these frantic visits. There is, of course, no question of him not winning from Thoubal, but he knows, and so do we, that his victory margin is likely to come down,” a Congress worker said. In the 2012 Assembly election, the Chief Minister won by a margin of 10,000 votes.
But this election, he faces a new challenger, and a new campaign style. The BJP has carpet-bombed the electoral space, campaigning aggressively with full-page ads in English and vernacular newspapers, giant hoardings promising development, and vans touring the length and breadth of the Imphal valley.
Rahul Gandhi was the lone star campaigner for the Congress but the BJP brass turned out in strength to boost the party morale and fortunes — from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to BJP president Amit Shah to Home Minister Rajnath Singh, all came calling. Many of its leaders camped in Imphal city during the last two months.
The BJP electoral plank of development is one that the Chief Minister considered his own these many years. Prime Minister Modi promised a massive push for infrastructure in the state — roads, piped drinking water, electricity, jobs, tourism and a long list of desires.
Union Minister Prakash Javadekar, in-charge of the BJP in the state, said: “Our campaign on drinking water was so successful and made Ibobi Singh so nervous that he had to announce he will ensure drinking water to all if the Congress returns.’’
The Chief Minister, on his part, has been blaming the Centre for the miseries of the state, including the continuing economic blockade imposed by the United Naga Council. “People are suffering so much. Had the Centre wanted, they could have resolved this. They are in peace talks with the NSCN-IM, and the UNC is nothing but its mouthpiece,’’ he told the Thoubal crowd.
Javadekar, in turn, blames the state Congress for the blockade. “We have explained to them that this will not be possible for us without imposing President’s rule,’’ he said. And this explanation has several takers. Many in Thoubal too are convinced that the BJP can end the blockade “within 24 hours of forming the government’’.
From a family of poor peasants, the Chief Minister’s rise has been meteoric. He put himself through school in his village and then attended DM College in Imphal. “After Manipur became a state in 1972, one of my uncles decided to contest the Assembly elections but lost by 272 votes. I was in charge of his election campaign, handling his schedule, meetings, rallies, organising political events. I was his political aide. It was my first taste of politics,’’ Singh told The Indian Express.
He fought his first election as an independent candidate in 1984 at the age of 35. He went on to win and, within the year, was inducted into the Congress. By 1989, he was secretary of the Congress Legislature Party in Manipur.
In the 2012 election, Ibobi Singh returned to power despite a ban on the Congress by Corcom, an umbrella organisation of seven banned Meitei armed groups.