Elections to the Manipur Legislative Assembly (2007-2022): Some personal memories and observations (Part 2)

Sanjoy Akoijam
The intervening period between 2012 and 2017 was a tumultuous period in National politics. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) scored an unprecedented victory and swept to power at the Centre after the Lok Sabha Election of 2014. Manipur defied the “Tsu-Namo” that year and managed to send two Congress MPs to Parliament. But it was only a matter of time before we would be engulfed by the winds of political change, for as the saying goes “When it rains in Delhi, the umbrellas come up in Imphal”. A prelude to what awaited us in 2017 was seen in 2015 when the BJP scored handsome victories in bye-elections to two Assembly seats in the valley region. The BJP also fared very well in the local body elections of 2015 and 2016. Despite their impressive performances, few imagined then that they would overthrow the 15 year old Congress regime in 2017.
The 2017 State legislative Assembly election soon came knocking on our doors. This time, BJP tickets were in high demand. The party campaigned aggressively, no holds barred. Central party leaders flew in and out of Manipur at rates never seen before. The Congress Party was in no hurry to surrender too. Ruling a volatile State like Manipur for 3 consecutive terms through thick and thin was no mean feat. The BJP had its task cut out, and they worked quite efficiently too. For the first time, a political party harnessed the power of social media, and media as a whole, in an Assembly election in Manipur.
An innovative campaign song “BJP gi Thambal, Modiji gi Thambal” was at the forefront of the party’s campaign, coupled with frequent large front page newspaper ads that chided the 15 year old Congress regime and promised a broad variety of positive changes if they were voted to power. The Congress did their best to counter the BJP media storm, but the saffron camp seemed to be always a step ahead. However, all the hard work the BJP did was almost derailed by the issue of disgruntled ticket contenders. There were many Constituencies in which there were multiple BJP ticket aspirants. Some graciously accepted the ticket decisions of the party high command; others were not so easy to give up. There was open dissent within the State unit, but the simmering tensions cooled down to a great extent before the election. There were contests for Congress tickets too, although not at rates seen with the BJP. Those intending candidates who did not manage to secure Congress or BJP tickets chose to migrate to other parties, like the National People’s Party (NPP) for instance. It was soon clear however that the main contests in a majority of seats would be between the Congress and the BJP. In the Naga-inhabited hill regions, the NPF gave both parties a run for their money.
The run-up to the 2017 election was far from rosy. CM Ibobi and his team came under fire in Ukhrul district where they had gone to inaugurate certain projects. Economic blockades and counter economic blockades on the National Highways dominated news headlines. The swift creation of 7 new districts in December 2016 by the Ibobi administration calmed many sections of people but it also set off a whole new cycle of violence and tension. The days leading up to Christmas and New Year celebrations were marred by a growing anti-tribal sentiment in the valley region: set off by disdain of the economic blockade and compounded by several other factors. There was even an internet ban of a few days to cool down tensions. In short, it was not the ideal environment for election related activities.
Personally, I did not experience much of the high voltage atmosphere prior to the election of 2017 as I was not at home. I was in my last year of school and staying in the school hostel, and there we had little access to the happenings of the outside world. Newspapers were our main source of news. However, some of my hostel mates were also interested in election related stuff, and we had occasional discussions regarding the same. My maternal grandfather was gearing up for his third election. I visited him a few times, when I got the opportunity to go home. I was able to join him and his team one Sunday morning for door-to-door campaigning. Also, I attended one booth level meeting of his on a cold winter evening in January (it fortunately happened to be at the house of one of my school teachers). This time, my grandfather’s opposition was stiffer. He decided to remain with the Congress, unlike many of his colleagues who switched over to the BJP. The stage was set for a showdown between him and his younger, more energised opponent whom he had bested in the previous election.
The absence of a strong third candidate meant that it was akin to a straight fight. Meanwhile in our own Constituency, our confident MLA was up against the same rival from 5 years ago. The only difference was that his rival had switched from the Trinamool Congress to the BJP. There were 3-4 BJP ticket contenders in our Constituency (including one uncle from our locality), but the party put their faith in him, who lost out very narrowly in the last election.
There was a fear that the elections might be delayed owing to the law and order situation in the hill regions. However, it was conducted on time in two phases in March 2017. My grandfather’s Constituency and ours voted on the same day. It was quite uneventful, except for a weak earthquake early in the morning when voting had just begun. It proved to be a sign of things to come ! After spending some time in our locality, my father and I drove around various Constituencies in Imphal area, to see the progress in polling. I also spent some time at my grandfather’s house that day.
Results were declared just a week later, and it was a fractured mandate. The Congress fell 3 seats short of a simple majority, while the BJP picked up an impressive 21 seats with an overall vote share more than the Congress. Both my grandfather and our local MLA who were Congress candidates lost by a fair margin. The Lotus had well and truly bloomed in the two Constituencies. The rest of the seats in the Assembly were shared between parties like the NPP, NPF, LJP, Trinamool, etc. These smaller parties became the kingmakers in the end. I think there is no need to mention the epic game of political chess that unfolded in the 3-4 days after the declaration of results in 2017 ! I shall mention only the end result of it all – the BJP’s Shri Nongthombam Biren Singh in the CM’s chair, as the leader of a shaky coalition Government. 5 years have passed, and we have witnessed all sorts of political drama that are still fresh in public memory. Who will not remember the political twists and turns witnessed in the run-up and the aftermath of the 2020 Rajya Sabha election ?
Anyway, we are once again at the threshold of yet another legislative Assembly election. The race for the BJP ticket is even more intense this time around, and it is not surprising as they have consolidated their position quite well since 2017. The Congress’ influence has reduced significantly, after a mass exodus of several leaders to other parties, especially to the BJP. Despite that, the Grand Old Party of India is still a force to be reckoned with. The Conrad Sangma-led NPP has also built up strength in the past few years. Although they are coalition partners with the BJP, there have been many instances where skirmishes between the two have gone public. There will be a good number of Constituencies where the BJP and the NPP will square up against each other. It has been observed that there are several strong intending candidates opting for parties like the NPP, NPF, JD(U), etc. The talk in political circles is that it is better to contest and win as candidates of smaller parties (especially parties that are allied with the BJP at the Centre), considering the kingmaker role that they played in the last election in 2017. Some opinion polls have predicted a simple majority for the BJP, but it is likely that the 2022 verdict will once again give us a fractured mandate. We will have to wait and watch. Even parties like the RPI (A) and Apna Dal (S)- both part of the NDA- who have limited influence in their own home States are active in Manipur this time. COVID-19 and its various variants have made life hell for all of us for two years now, and it will have a bearing on the upcoming elections too- considering the Omicron variant’s rapid spread. Unfortunate pre-poll violence has also reared its ugly head on multiple occasions too. On a personal note, my maternal grandfather has retired from active politics. His Constituency is witnessing an epic battle between multiple candidates this time. Meanwhile, it will be a similar interesting battle in our Consti- tuency too. As for me, I am waiting eagerly to vote for the first time.