Given its chequered coalition history in Manipur, the Bharatiya Janata Party could face a tough scenario in the upcoming Assembly by elections and beyond ~ YAMBEM LABA
Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Manipur government
was sworn in by Governor Najma Heptulla, it has been facing a see-saw battle for survival. In early 2017 during the last Assembly elections, the BJP had returned 21 seats, but the Congress Party had 28 elected MLAs in a House of 60. The BJP first roped in Th Shyamkumar, who was elected on a
Congress ticket. He was sworn in as a Cabinet minister even before he was
sworn in as an MLA! The BJP thereafter tied up with four MLAs belonging to the Naga People’s Front, four from the Conrad Sangma-led National People’s Party, one from the Ram Vilas-led Lok Janashakti Party, one
belonging to Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress and the lone independent MLA, thus taking their tally to 33.
The dynamics of the saffron brigade were quite visible when N
Biren Singh was chosen to be the leader of the BJP Legislature Party
although he had only seven legislators with him compared to 14 backing
Thongam Biswajit. Apparently, the BJP wished to send a message to the
Congress Party as, till October 2016, Singh was a cabinet minister and
spokesperson for the Congress Party.
The first challenge to chief minister Singh’s leadership came from
within the BJP itself when Biswajit was holed up with a team of 17 legislators, first in Kolkata and then in Delhi. He backed down after a stern
word from Union home minister Amit Shah but was stripped off almost all
his portfolios by Singh. He was, however, given them back.
The second jolt came on the eve of the Rajya Sabha elections when the
BJP announced the titular king of Manipur Leishemba Sanajaoba as its
candidate. To higher-ups in the saffron brigade, the move was not only
aimed at adding another voice in the Upper House, but also a way of silencing those who questioned the controversial merger agreement between Manipur and the Union of India in 1949. For till 2019, the old Manipuri flag would be hoisted every year on
14th August – Manipur’s Independence Day – at the palace by Sanajaoba himself. The BJP wished to kill two birds with one stone but even before
he filed his nomination, several civil society organisations asked the titular king to reconsider his decision. He paid no heed to their calls and the
Manipuri flag was raised elsewhere. However, the shock to the ruling
coalition did not come from the CSOs, who had been demanding that
Sanajaoba drop his bid to join mainstream politics, but from the BJP
itself. In an out of the blue scenario, three BJP legislators announced their
resignations from their respective seats and joined the Congress Party.
They were TT Haokip from Henglep constituency, P Brojendro Singh from
Naoria Pakhanglakpa and Samuel Zindai from Tamenglong.
The balance began to tilt in favour of the Congress Party when the
four ministers belonging to the NPP also announced that they were quitting the coalition. Prior to their announcement, CM Singh stripped
off all portfolios from deputy chief minister Yumnam Joykumar Singh,
who is the leader of the NPP’s legislature party. It followed from a war of
words during rice distribution as Covid-19 relief. The lone TMC MLA T
Robindro and the independent MLA Ashafuddin also announced their
departure from the BJP-led coalition.
After NPP leaders announced that their move was one of “no surrender, no retreat”, they were flown to Delhi courtesy Assam’s Himanta Biswa Sarma and Conrad Sangma, chief minister of Meghalaya and the “national chief” of the NPP. Once there, they were made to have an audience with Amit Shah but what transpired is not known. The dissenting leaders, however, returned to Imphal and made yet another announcement that they were hopping back on the BJP bandwagon as they wanted to avoid President’s Rule in Manipur.
In the meantime, following a directive from the Supreme Court,
Shyamkumar, the first defector from the Congress Party, submitted his resignation and Speaker Yumnam Khemchand also announced his disqualification. That left 56 members present for the Rajya Sabha polls.
Khemchand interpreted the 10th Schedule of the Constitution when he
selectively disqualified three Congress Party members out of eight MLAs
who had announced months ago that they would join the BJP but remained
seated on the Opposition bench. Then Biren Singh pulled a rabbit
out of the hat when the actual casting of votes took place. On the crucial day, seven Congress Party MLAs cross voted for the BJP candidate defying
the former party’s whip and all of them tendered their resignations from
the Assembly. The pack of seven was led by Okram Henry, nephew of former chief minister and leader of the Congress Legislature Party Okram
Ibobi Singh, and RK Imo Singh, son of RK Jaichandra Singh, former Congress Party chief minister and a close aide of Rajiv Gandhi, and son-in-law of Biren Singh. Interestingly, Imo Singh continues to be an unattached MLA. Soon, time came for rewarding those who supported the BJP. Biren
Singh dropped two of the four NPP ministers and three from his own
party. Perhaps again acting at the behest of top cats in the saffron
brigade, the list of new ministers started with Henry, notwithstanding the fact that he was under the lens of the CBI in a multi crore drug racket
case. Another former Congress Party member O Lukhoi was given a ministerial berth and declared that his constituency’s voters would be showered with government jobs, but he got a rap from the state’s Human Rights Commission over it. There is still a ministerial berth left in the Cabinet of 12 and it was expected that Khemchand would be accommodated but he reportedly declined. The reaction from the NPP was
as expected. Prior to the reshuffle, the NPP had announced that even if one
of them got dropped, all four would leave the government. The quad left
for Shillong and closeted with Sangma. They said thereafter that they
were observing a “wait and watch” policy and would continue to support
the BJP-led government. According to observers, Sangma’s decision was
taken keeping his own interest in Meghalaya in mind where he heads a
fragile NPP-led government with the Congress Party a major threat.
The Election Commission of India has already announced by-elections to five of the 12 seats now lying vacant in Manipur in November. Biren Singh has begun campaigning in Wangjing-Tentha and the state’s Congress Party chief Moirangthem Okendra has also stated his party’s intent. The NPP, on the other hand, has announced that it will field candidates in all 12 seats.
The Biren Singh government would be in a precarious position if
the soon-to-be-declared Naga Peace Accord changes the territorial or
administrative integrity of Manipur in any way. In which case, the four
MLAs belonging to the NPP might be asked to part ways from the BJP government, as the former party is seen as the legislative proxy of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (IsakMuivah). Even if the NSCN (I-M) does not form a part of the soon to be signed pact, it could do so with a view
towards embarrassing the central BJP leadership. Also, if the NPP increases
its strength from four to six, it will start flexing its muscles again with or
without the blessings of Sangma. Should such a scenario emerge, the
Centre would not think twice before imposing President’s Rule in Manipur
and pave the way for a smooth roll out of the final Naga Accord.
The writer is the Imphal-based Special
Representative of The Statesman (Courtesy The Statesman)