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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Manipur CM N Biren Singh interview: ‘Senior BJP leaders campaign signals it should be fine for me after polls’

In an interview with The Indian Express, Manipur CM N Biren Singh says people are not 'so bothered about AFSPA now', but his government will continue to demand its repeal

Written by Tora Agarwala | Imphal |
Updated: February 24, 2022 7:40:43 am
Manipur CM N Biren SinghManipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh. (Twitter/@NBirenSingh)

The tenure of Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh, who formed the state’s first BJP government after the 2017 Assembly elections, has seen both highs and lows over the last five years. On one hand, the former footballer and journalist has been seen as an amiable, accessible Meitei leader, who has worked hard to bridge the hill-versus-valley divide in the conflict-ridden state.

On the other, the 56-year-old leader has also drawn criticism over his government’s crack-down on dissenting voices and its move to make a series of arrests under the UAPA. In an interview with The Indian Express, Biren Singh, who is spearheading the saffron party’s campaign in the upcoming state Assembly elections, spoke on a range of issues related to his track-record and polls. Excerpts:

2017 was a historic election for the BJP. What were the challenges of the last five years?

Running a coalition government…it was the most difficult thing. The National People’s Party (NPP) was difficult, and even within the Naga People’s Front, one or two people were difficult. In 2020, we averted a crisis (when the NPP virtually pulled the plug on the government). They did not like my working style, which is very different from others. I wanted to go to the grassroots, but not everyone did. So handling a coalition was the most difficult task. This time we are trying very hard to get the absolute majority on our own.

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Your ‘Go To Hills’ initiative got a lot of attention. What made you think of that?

All these years, the hill districts never developed. No one tried to do anything to help the hills. We Meiteis should act as the guardians of the hills, but no one bothered. So, there has always been a division…socially, politically. When I became chief minister, I thought we must bridge this gap, We must go to the hills, hold Cabinet meetings there, consult their leaders, ask them what they want, understand their problems. We started “ima” markets (women-run markets) there, and installed oxygen plants during the Covid crisis.

But even now many in the hill districts say ‘Go To Hills’ is nothing more than a slogan, and development has still not reached there.

I will admit, development-wise, there is a long way to go. But we are trying, step by step. We are investing more money in the hills… change can only come gradually. Look how bandhs and blockades between the hills and valleys have stopped. All those used to happen because there were years of mistrust between the communities. The fact that bandhs and blockades have stopped…it means we have at least managed to bridge the communication gap.

Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) is the reason you joined politics. Today, every other party has it on the manifesto, but not the BJP.

People are not so bothered about AFSPA now. The relationship of the security forces with the public has become better. Police-public relationship has improved. No incident (of police excesses) has happened in the last five years. Having said that, whether it is on or off the manifesto, repeal of AFSPA has been our government’s continuing demand, and will always remain so. But first, we have to bring a conducive atmosphere to convince the Centre that AFSPA can be removed.

Before you jumped into politics, you were first a footballer, and later, a journalist. How do these two roles shape you as a politician today?

Yes, at one point I was obsessed with football. Two of my sons are named after Pele and Zico. The sport runs in my blood, as does journalism. These roles have taught me that communicating, meeting people is the solution to all problems. As a CM, I started a number of initiatives such as “CM Da Haisi (Let’s tell the CM)”, “MeeyamgiNumit (People’s day)”…Thousands of people came here to share their grievances. Once, a student from Kangpokpi district texted me to recharge his phone. I verified whether he was indeed a student, and recharged his phone for one year.

But there is heavy criticism against you for stifling freedom of expression, booking people, especially journalists, under the NSA.

That is not true. There are 400-500 journalists who write against me, critique me…have I done anything? No…But there was one journalist, who made a very improper joke on a sensitive matter on the death of the BJP president, so we took action. But the national media misconstrued it and suddenly they were headlines, “Biren is arresting journalists”. That was wrong, there was a context. I was a journalist myself…so why should I be stifling others?

If BJP wins, who is going to be the next Manipur CM, there is talk that it may not be you?

It is not in my hand, but many senior BJP leaders, who are campaigning in Manipur, make frequent references to the “Biren government”…these are signals that it should be fine (for me after polls). Having said that, becoming CM or not does not matter to me. Right now, all I care about is getting an absolute majority.

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