With three MLAs from the BJP — TT Haokip, S Subaschandra Singh, and Samuel Jendai — resigning from the BJP and the Assembly to defect to the Congress, and Conrad Sangma’s National People’s Party withdrawing support from the BJP government in Manipur and instead throwing their weight behind the Congress party, the next few days will determine whether the three-year N Biren Singh government will survive its first real political crisis.
The Manipur High Court is currently hearing the matter of disqualification of seven Congress MLAs who had earlier defected to the BJP. If they are disqualified, they will not be able to vote in a no-confidence motion that may be brought in the Manipur Assembly.
Off to a rough start
The BJP’s win in Manipur in 2017 was historic. With no footprint in the largely tribal northeastern states, the election marked the BJP’s entry by toppling a 15-year strong Congress rule. While the election itself was the most closely contested that the state had witnessed in recent years, with many MLAs in both the Congress and BJP winning with narrow margins, the formation of the first ever BJP government was also not without travail. The Congress had a clear majority, with 28 MLAs as opposed to the BJP’s 21.
What drastically changed the dynamics for the first time in Manipur was how well a number of other parties had done. Most importantly Nagaland’s Naga People’s Front in the Naga hill areas of the state, winning four MLAs, and Conrad Sangma’s National People’s Party another four.
Having secured these two alliances, and with Congress MLA Shyamkumar jumping ship to join the BJP and support from LJP and TMC MLAs, the BJP cobbled together a patchwork government.
N Biren Singh’s nomination as the Chief Minister was equally hotly contested. With many of the stalwarts having been unable to secure victories, such as then BJP president Th Chaoba Singh who was tipped to be Manipur’s Chief Minister, political analysts have felt that the BJP simply did not have any other choice but to chose Biren, who had himself recently jumped ship from the Congress to the BJP ahead of the assembly elections. The only other contender to the hot seat was BJP leader Th Biswajit Singh who lost the battle to Biren Singh on the grounds that he was simply too young and did not have enough experience.
The three years of Chief Minister N Biren Singh’s tenure has been tumultuous to say the least. During Okram Ibobi Singh’s three terms, the gap between the Hills (the tribals) and the Valley (the dominant Hindu-Meitei community) in Manipur seemed to widen, specially in the last term when the Nagas were firmly positioned against the Meiteis and the Kuki-Paitei dominated Churachandpur hills were aflame with protests against the Ibobi Singh government.
Editorial | Mess in Manipur
While Manipur’s capital city of Imphal has a sizeable population of tribals, Meiteis would rarely visit or be seen in the hills. One of the first measures that the Biren Singh administration did after having come to power, is to bridge this gap and smoothen over differences between the communities. He held the first ever festival in Ukhrul Hills (occupied by Tangkhul Nagas) which he inaugurated himself. The nearly week-long festival was landmark and saw a large population of Meiteis from the valley visit Ukhrul, many for the first time in their lives.
Singh would also hold the occasional cabinet meeting in a hill district, ensuring that the Meitei dominated government (with 40 seats for Meiteis and 20 seats for tribals) was never seen as anti-tribal. He assiduously tried to reboot the image of a government that was perceived time and time again by Manipur’s tribal population as being anti-tribal, especially under the Ibobi administration.
Singh’s image was solidified further with a number of other achievements – state wide bandhs and economic blockades called by civil organisations in different parts of the state, that could last for days (the longest being the 100 day economic blockade of 2011), were now a thing of the past. So were the violent protests, stone pelting, tear-gassing and curfews following the protests – with not a single one having been imposed in three years. The state economy, too, has started doing better.
Singh carefully built an image of being accessible to the public and would hold regular jan sabhas. He would even attend events where he would be known to engage in public debate with the people.
But Singh’s biggest victory was probably being able to bring the Inner Line Permit, a system that the people of Manipur have been demanding since the 1970s, to the state. And that too without protests or bloodshed, unlike the Ibobi era when violent protests had erupted in different parts of the state leading to the death of at least ten people.
The only violent protest that the Biren-Singh government did face was that of an 85-day long agitation by students and teachers of Manipur University demanding the removal of newly appointed Vice Chancellor Adya Prasad Pandey in 2018. In a first, eighty nine students and six faculty members were arrested by the Manipur police in midnight raids and there were news reports of male students being teargassed in the boys hostels at the University.
The incident marked the first of many where the Biren Singh government would arrest journalists and threaten academics, human rights activists or anyone who would criticise either the Chief Minister himself, or his government. A cyber cell in the government headquarters is believed to monitor content and comments put up by residents on social media closely.
Thirty-nine year old Kishorechand Wangkhem, who was working as an anchor-reporter for local news channel ISTV, was arrested in November 2018 after he uploaded a video on social media criticising the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and calling Singh a “puppet of Hindutva.” He was kept in jail for 133 days. While Wangkhem’s arrest was the most prominent, there have been reports of numerous others who were briefly detained by the Manipur police for speaking against the administration.
What went wrong
The intolerance that started marking Chief Minister Biren Singh’s tenure started seeping in to his political life as well. In June 2019, Singh divested Deputy CM and NPP MLA Y Joykumar Singh of his Finance portfolio as well as the portfolios of BJP rival Th Biswajit Singh. Analysts point out that Singh’s attempt to position himself as the sole face of the Manipur government had annoyed a number of ministers and party members in the local unit and had created deep chasms within the state BJP.
An enraged Th Biswajit approached both Ram Madhav and Himanta Biswa Sarma and then later brought his complaint directly to Amit Shah. His move was swiftly countered by a hasty visit by the Chief Minister himself to Delhi. With the intervention of the central leadership, Th Biswajit’s portfolios were restored, but not Joykumar’s, and the matter was ostensibly laid to rest.
In April this year, in a meeting to discuss the pandemic lockdown, the deputy Chief Minister raised the issue of rice being distributed under the National Food Security Act. He once again criticised the Chief Minister and asked him to refrain from ‘making false promises’. And once again, Joykumar was divested of his portfolios – this time Environment, Forests and Climate Change.
Ironically, under the Ibobi administration, these two rivals, were once the Congress Chief minister’s closest aides. Biren Singh was Ibobi’s trouble-shooter, taking care of any political disputes within the party, while Joykumar, the former DGP of Manipur, was his administrative right hand man in this once conflict-ridden state. The two often worked together on issues that Ibobi Singh wanted ‘handled’.
And as the political chasm continued to grow, all the while a wily Okram Ibobi Singh lay waiting in the wings to make his move. Ibobi Singh has ostensibly made this move ahead of the Rajya Sabha elections to place Biren Singh in a weakened position. Analysts further say that he is looking ahead at the 2022 assembly elections and if the BJP government were to be toppled, it is unlikely that he himself will take the chair of the Chief Minister, rather delegating the job to a colleague.
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