The Congress party seems to be in dire straits in Manipur as it braces to face the upcoming Assembly elections in this North-eastern state. Like other states in the region, Manipur was also once its bastion. But, the grand old party has been in a steady decline in Manipur too, with its MLAs’ tally in the existing 60-member Assembly plunging from 28 seats in 2017 to mere 13 now.
Led by state Congress stalwart and 3-time chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh, the party had ended up in 2017 Assembly polls as a single largest party. But it was outsmarted by the BJP, which led by N Biren, managed to cobble up the majority number and form the government by forming alliances with smaller parties.
Since then, the Congress has been on a downward slide, racked by periodic rounds of defections. In fact, two senior Congress legislators, Chaltonlien Amo and Kakching Y Surchandra, have switched over to the BJP just this week. In August 2021, even the then Manipur Congress president, Govinddas Konthoujam, defected to the saffron party.
The Congress has been a major player in Manipur politics since 1950s even before it gained full-fledged statehood. It had been in power multiple times with R K Keishing serving as the CM for three terms — from 1980 to 1988 and, subsequently, from 1994 to 1997. From 2002 to 2017, the Congress ruled Manipur with Ibobi Singh as the CM.
Political experts say the waves of MLAs’ defections from the Congress to the BJP, who also rules the Centre, is typical of the North-east politics, with the party ruling the Centre calling the shots in states across the region.
The region’s politics is also defined by its volatility, which was witnessed in Manipur in 2020 too, when a BJP ally
National People’s Party as well as three of its own MLAs withdrew support from the N Biren government. The BJP government had then virtually collapsed and it seemed for a few days that the Congress might stage a comeback. But, the saffron camp managed to avert the crisis following the intervention of its central leadership.
The Congress also appears to be gripped by a leadership crisis. The 73-year-old Ibobi Singh, who is currently Leader of the Opposition, has been out of action for a long time. He is rarely seen even in his own constituency, Thoubal, from where he has been winning since 2002.
Dismissing such an assessment, Manipur Congress chief K Meghachandra says the party is going all out to fight the Assembly elections, asserting that it still has many “veteran and experienced” leaders. Terming Ibobi Singh as the Congress’s “key person”, Meghachandra says, “He (Ibobi) is a heavyweight…active or inactive, it does not matter. Everyone knows him, and he is still powerful.”
At the peak of Ibobi’s power, during his second and third terms as the CM, the Congress had been beset by intense factionalism and infighting, with the party being torn between MLAs loyal to Ibobi and a dissident group. The factional feuds hit a flash point in 2016, when Yumkham Erabot, seniormost Congress legislator and Ibobi’s arch rival, left the party to join the BJP. This led to other leaders following suit, including N Biren, the incumbent CM.
Following the exit of Erabot and Biren, other leaders and MLAs began to jump ship. It is said that a number of the dissidents would have quit the Congress earlier but the party’s successive victories had deterred them. With the BJP forming its government, the trend of defection from the Congress gained momentum.
Manipur Congress vice president and spokesperson, Kh Devabrata Singh, admitted that the party has suffered damages owing to the exodus of its legislators towards the ruling party. “A party (BJP) whose policy is to uproot its rival (Congress-mukt Bharat)… one can imagine how destructive and relentless it would be. However, we are safe now and trying to reconstruct our party,” he said.
Exuding confidence about the Congress’s prospects if the polls are held “free and fair”, Devabrata said the party has received applications for election tickets from aspirants from nearly 50 Assembly constituencies. He said the party even had electoral understanding with one of the BJP’s allies.
“This is a good sign,” Devabrata said. “As Opposition, we have done our best to expose the BJP’s misgovernance…the latest being the attempts of the government to include non-tribal MLAs in the Hill Area Committee.”
Meghachandra said “only the power-hungry people” had left the Congress, which, he added, was still a national party that should not be written off so soon.
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