Elections to the Manipur Legislative Assembly (2007-2022): Some personal memories and observations (Part 1)
First of all, it must be confessed that I have had a keen interest in following electoral politics, elections and related stuff from an early age. My first experience of ‘election’ was in 2005-06, when I accompanied my father to our local polling station where he was to cast his vote for the local body elections. I was just in the 2nd standard (or, Class II as we say in Manipur) at that time and the only things I could make out were the various colourful posters and flags with various symbols for different candidates. I was however quite clear about one thing- An election is a game of numbers.
After 2005-06 until now, I have witnessed several elections taking place in Manipur- elections to the State legislative Assembly, elections to the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha (Lower & Upper Houses of Parliament), elections to local self governing bodies like the Gram Panchayats, Municipalities, Nagar Panchayats, ADCs (Autonomous District Councils), etc. But for this write-up, I shall focus on the three past Assembly elections of 2007, 2012, 2017 and a bit of the upcoming election of 2022.
2007 provided my first opportunity to develop some knowledge of local politics in Manipur. Prior to that election, the only thing I knew about the administration of the State was that Shri Okram Ibobi was the State’s Chief Minister and Shri SS Sidhu, the Governor. To be honest, what piqued my interest in the 2007 election was mainly the fact that my maternal grandfather was a candidate in that election. He contested on a MPP (Manipur People’s Party) ticket, and I clearly remember my father and I frequently going to his house in the run up to the election. It was all a new experience for me, the multitude of flags and banners, the rallies and meetings, the groups of people seated around large meiphus/any heat source in the cold evenings, the never ending discussions, etc. The atmosphere was never dull. We belonged to a different cConstituency than that of my maternal grandfather, and I was mighty puzzled on Election Day as to why we weren’t going to his place to vote ! (Well, I later learnt that we could not vote in Constituencies other than our own.) Meanwhile in my own Constituency too, I had a fair idea of who the candidates were. Posters, banners and flags were there for all to see, and listening to family discussions also helped in this regard. I remember one candidate who came to our house for his door-to-door campaign, and one of his team members put up a poster on one of our walls without proper permission. As soon as they were gone, the poster was gone too in no time- my uncle had swiftly removed it !
Election Day was all fun and games for me that year. One of my aunts took me around the locality and collected different flags of different political parties for me. I still remember the flags we collected that day- Congress, BJP, MPP, SP (Samajwadi Party), etc. I didn’t care much about the results that year, as I still knew very little. But my maternal grandfather won his seat, by quite a handsome margin too. The scene of his victory procession and that of his sulking opponent that came on ISTV News in the evening of the results is still quite fresh in my mind. However, I heard he ended up in the ‘Opposition’. I also heard vaguely that the Congress Party had reached 30 seats on its own. In later years, I found out that parties like the NCP (Nationalist Congress Party), RJD (Rashtriya Janata Dal) and the CPI (Communist Party of India) also fared well in the 2007 elections. Perhaps, those parties derived their influence in those days from the fact that they were alliance partners in the then Congress-led UPA-I Government at the Centre.
In the intervening period between 2007 and 2012, I greatly enhanced my knowledge of State and National politics. The Lok Sabha election of 2009 helped greatly in this regard. In that five year period, I not only learnt a lot but also developed a sort of ‘beginner’s’ ability to analyse and give my own observations about political occurrences in the country, something that only very few of my peers had interest in. Then, the Assembly election of 2012 arrived.
On the eve of the 2012 election, the Okram Ibobi led SPF Government was on strong ground. Circumstances were quite similar to 2007, as the Congress was in power in Delhi too and many intending candidates were vying for the Congress ticket for the polls. In many seats, the main opponents of the Congress candidates were fielded by parties like the Trinamool Congress and the MSCP (Manipur State Congress Party). The MSCP was given a fresh lease of life in 2012 by a number of strong candidates who were snubbed by the Congress.
The Trinamool Congress was the Congress’ main opponent in 2012. The party’s rise in Manipur was rapid, fuelled by confidence gained from a huge victory in West Bengal the year before (the 2011 Trinamool victory in Bengal was no mean feat, the party had breached India’s communist citadel and dislodged the 34 year old regime of the Left Front). The party supremo and West Bengal CM Mamata Banjerjee (who is still occupying the WB CM’s chair today) even came to Imphal for campaigning. 2012 also saw the debut of the Naga Peoples’ Front (NPF) in Manipur. In the previous election in 2007, 6 independent Naga candidates backed by the apex Manipur Naga body, the United Naga Council (UNC) were elected to the State Assembly. I felt that the NPF would act as the concrete political platform for those supported by the UNC and other bodies who espoused the concept of integration of Nagas across all North Eastern States. There was some hue and cry in the valley about the NPF’s supposed ‘communal’ and ‘divisive’ nature (there still is today). Nagaland CM Neiphiu Rio was the star campaigner for the NPF. He and the NPF had been at loggerheads with the Ibobi administration ever since the 2010 incident when NSCN (IM) supremo Thuingaleng Muivah was stopped from visiting his native village of Somdal in Ukhrul district. My maternal grandfather and one of his MPP MLA colleagues joined the Congress before the polls. Two of his other MPP MLA colleagues joined the Trinamool Congress, which meant that the only MPP MLA left in the Assembly was the old warhorse, Shri Okram Joy. This time, my grandfather was up against his old opponent and a newer, younger, more spirited opponent. At one point of time, all three of them were Congress ticket aspirants ! In the end, he won the lottery, and his other two opponents were fielded by the Trinamool and the MSCP respectively. I joined him and his team early one morning for door-to-door campaigning in one area of his Constituency- a first time experience for me.
The elections in 2012 were also characterised by frequent bomb attacks on the houses of Congress workers and candidates-the result of an unfortunate underground boycott of the party. One person in our Constituency lost his life, and I remember that there was a one day shutdown of the Constituency to protest the same. All 60 Assembly Constituencies of the State voted on the same day that year, quite rare considering the fact that prior elections were held often in 2-3 phases. Armed violence at one polling station in Chandel district led to casualties on Election Day. There were lots of re-polls later, especially after it was found that many photos taken of the electorate did not match their voter ID photos ! (It may be reminded that the ECI that year ordered pictures of those who cast their votes to be taken along with their voter ID cards after they had cast their votes). Personally, I remember accompanying my late paternal grandfather to our local polling station early in the morning on Election Day. He was one of the first to cast his vote. He always made it a point to freshen up, dress decently and go out early to vote. Later that day, my father and I went for a tour of polling stations in my maternal grandfather’s Constituency.
Results came around one month later, and the Congress romped home with an absolute majority, winning 42 out of 60 seats! It was a historic performance. I remember coming home from school on the day of the results. The first thing I did at home was listening to the radio, which of course brought news of the Congress’ victory. The remaining 19 Assembly seats were shared between the Trinamool Congress, MSCP, NPF, LJP and NCP. My grandfather also retained his seat comfortably. His mammoth victory procession was captured very well in the media. It even appeared on the front page of The Hindu. Meanwhile in our Constituency, our sitting MLA scored a narrow victory, earning himself a 5th term as an MLA. The Congress secured an unprecedented third straight term with the seemingly invincible Okram Ibobi at the helm once again- quite an anomaly, considering the volatile pre-2002 history of Manipuri politics.