Manipur 2022: In a game of musical chairs, NPP might emerge as the DJ
The NPP under Conrad Sangma has never been accused of having low ambition: it is the only “Northeast” party that has national status, a feat it achieved in 2019.

If you think you are an expert at connecting political leaders to their political parties, come to Manipur. Over the past five years, such has been the state of political affairs in this state of 3 million people (10% of the state of Assam) that compiling the list of all jumps would make for an interesting book.

Last week, a journalist at the Imphal Press Club recalled: “Our interview was ready. This guy spoke only against the BJP…he had little else to tell except how bad the BJP had been. We finished the interview late at night, so thought we would run it the next day. However, the next morning, the leader’s right hand called and said please do not run the interview, the leader has joined the BJP. I lost such a good story!” “Worry not, someone else will jump soon,” another journalist quipped. 

One journalist, for example, pointed out that social media had been full of posts showing former Congress president and now BJP leader Govindas Kanthoujam bad-mouthing current CM N Biren Singh. 

BJP: From smooth asphalt to rough seas

A month ago, EastMojo, in its Decoded episode, had called N Biren Singh “Bahubali Biren” and predicted that the Manipur BJP’s leadership was in the control of the footballer-turned-journalist-turned politician. The Congress leaders had been joining en masse, the opposition (or whatever was left of it) was divided. Sure, the Congress was trying to put up a tough face, but the BJP, with its allies: the National People’s Party and the Nagaland People’s Front was more than confident of a win. Or so it seemed. 

Manipur’s leaders are not known for sticking to party ideology, so many expected disgruntled voices emerging in the wake of the candidature list. But even by Manipur standards what we witnessed was alarming. The state, especially Imphal valley, saw an almost riot-like situation, with leaders, workers hitting the streets and vandalising both public and private property. In perhaps the most damning incident, some angry supporters in Lilong slaughtered a cow, making sure the poor animal’s head was resting on a BJP flag. 

The protests were more severe after the BJP gave the ticket to Rajkumar Imo Singh, a Congress defector and son-in-law of N. Biren Singh. Imo Singh had earlier been elected on a Congress ticket from Sagolband constituency in 2017 polls, defeating BJP candidate Kh.Loken by a slim margin of 19 votes. In retaliation, Loken, a BJP old-timer, joined the Janata Dal-United (I), a party that has contested elections in Manipur time and again but with no wins in its bag. 

Loken was not the only one. Arunkumar Thangjam of Wangkhei assembly constituency, who had quit the BJP to join the Congress only to join the BJP again, Nganbam Robert of Singjamei constituency and Kh Suresh from Uripok constituency, joined JDU (I). They were joined by super cop-turned-politician Th Brinda of Yaiskul constituency. 

And in a rare occurrence, sitting MLA from Moirang Constituency Pukhrem Sharatchandra Singh jumped ship from the BJP, after he was denied a ticket, and joined the Congress. This was not all, of course. 

BJP MLA Kshetrimayum Biren from Lamlai constituency also defected to the JDU after being denied a ticket. Biren, who won the 2017 polls on a Congress ticket, had defected to the BJP earlier. BJP leaders: former MLA Samual Jendai, former Chief Secretary O Nabakishore and former Director-General of Police L.M. Khaute also defected to JDU(I) soon as the BJP released its list of candidates. Independent MLA Asab Uddin from Jiribam constituency, who had extended support to the BJP coalition government in 2017, also joined JDU (I).

The JDU (I) has welcomed not only BJP defectors with party tickets, but also many Congress leaders. Congress MLA Khumukcham Joykishan, Muhammad Abdu Nasir and former Congress vice president Dwijamani are contesting the polls on JDU (I) tickets. 

The BJP’s ‘loss’ has not just helped the Congress and the JDU (I). The National People’s Party, an ally of the BJP until the past month, has also benefited. BJP MLAs Y Irabot, M Rameshwar, Ningthoujam Mangi and S Sovachandra joined the NPP after being denied a party ticket. The NPP, which won 4 seats in the 2017 elections and emerged as kingmakers along with the Nagaland People’s Front, is contesting the elections alone, like the BJP and the JDU (I). 

But perhaps the biggest damage for the BJP came following the rather shocking expulsion of spokesperson Chongtham Bijoy Singh. Bijoy had been a BJP member since the 90s when the party had any presence. Bijoy first contested the elections on a BJP ticket in 1995, albeit unsuccessfully. A true veteran of 30 years, Bijoy saw veterans being side-lined by turncoats, perhaps best exemplified by the CM himself. Even after his expulsion, Bijoy is clear that his fight is not against the BJP.

“I joined the party because of its ideology, culture, cadre base and the stance against corruption, black money, dynastic rule, etc…what happened, however, is that after Modiji came to power, there were lots of people flocking to the BJP to join,” he told EastMojo in an interview.

Bijoy, who called such leaders ‘immigrants’, believes they do not have the core agenda or the ideology. “They just want to use the BJP as their vehicle to take them to power. The party I once loved has evolved beyond recognition,” he lamented. 

Once again, it is true that political leaders, and not party ideologies, decide elections in Manipur. So, Bijoy’s words may not impact election results much, but it sure is an indication of how the ‘new’ BJP in Manipur has, essentially, become an umbrella organisation for all those seeking quick access to power and having the money to support their claims and candidacy. 

This also explains why allies NPP and NPF have also decided to part ways with the BJP. For now, at least. The NPP under Conrad Sangma has never been accused of having low ambition: it is the only “Northeast” party that has national status, a feat it achieved in 2019. Sangma, who recently managed the unthinkable and brought the Congress and the BJP together in the same alliance in his home state of Meghalaya, sees himself as a true Northeast leader. Meghalaya heads to elections next year, but for now, Sangma is focusing on Manipur. 

The NPP, much like the JDU (I), is contesting on 38 seats and aims for an absolute majority, although that may be unlikely. Nevertheless, the party has strong leaders including Deputy CM Yumnam Joykumar Singh, who, since breaking alliance with the BJP, made no bones about how they were not happy with the BJP.

Joykumar, a former DGP, believes they are absolutely right to have higher expectations. In a conversation with EastMojo, he reminded us that in 2017, the four MLAs they sent to the assembly were only because two, including him, were denied BJP tickets while the other two were denied Congress tickets.

“Before 2017, we hardly had any presence in Manipur,” he said. “It was (the) NPP which enabled the BJP to form the government,” he added. Regarding being over-ambitious, Singh said, they would be “the single-largest party…we will win at least 20, and I believe the number will be closer to 30.”

The NPP has also alleged that the insurgents have been threatening its candidate, and only yesterday, one of their candidates was attacked by rival party members during campaigning. “The NPP has not suffered any major dissent in its party ranks, they have taken sitting BJP MLAs on board who have more than enough reasons to ensure they return to power, and in Sangma and Joykumar, they have clear party leaders unlike the BJP and Congress,” said the editor of a local daily on the condition of anonymity.

“They may not form a government on their own, but I am writing them off as another upstart,” he added. 

Ignore NPF at your own peril

The Nagaland People’s Front (NPF) is playing a calculated game this time: with only 10 seats to contest, and of course, all in the valley, the NPF knows what to expect. Even though the party was in an alliance with the BJP, like the NPP it is also contesting alone. Unlike the BJP, which remains iffy on the removal of AFSPA from the state, the NPF has made it clear that it wants nothing less than a complete removal of AFSPA. However, two factors ensure that the BJP does not have much to worry if the NPF does well in the elections: one, the NPF has said it is still open to an alliance with the BJP, and two, the NPF has also time and again attacked the Congress and is far unlikely to ally with them.

Ramnganing Muivah, popularly known as Ram Muivah, a former bureaucrat fielded by the Naga People’s Front (NPF) for the upcoming 12th Manipur Legislative Assembly polls from 44 Ukhrul, in a conversation with EastMojo said, “Naga people, under the Congress rule, suffered like no other. An iron curtain descended in Naga territories since 1956 when AFSPA was promulgated…it is the most draconian law in the world.”

For the NPF, AFSPA and Congress are inseparable, and it is unlikely that this stance will change, although post-poll alliances make for the strangest bedfellows. Just look at Meghalaya, where the Congress and the BJP are allies, under the leadership of-you guessed it-Conrad Sangma.

Also read: Molestation accused hangs self in Jaipur police station

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