Uncertain in Manipur

Print edition : February 16, 2002

Each political party in the State is contesting the two-phase polls on its own, leaving scope for post-electoral alliances.

WITH every important political party in Manipur admitting that it will not be able to win an absolute majority in the two-phase Assembly polls scheduled for February 14 and 21, political prospects in the northeastern State, which has been under President's Rule since May 2001, remain uncertain. Since attaining statehood in 1972, Manipur has witnessed a change of government 18 times. The present round of Assembly elections is the State's ninth, the previous one having been held in February 2000.

Former Chief Minister Rishang Keishing.-

Politics in Manipur is characterised by the presence of a large number of political parties, frequent splits, horse-trading and non-cohesive coalitions. Two new political parties, the Democratic People's Party (DPP) and the Manipur People's Conference (MPC), emerged during the latest spell of President's Rule, taking the total number of political parties in the State to 16. Political instability has been a feature of the State since the 1984 polls, when the Congress(I) was forced to seek the help of independents to form the government despite winning half the seats in the 60-member Assembly. Defection is common, even though several legislators have been suspended for violating the anti-defection law. In 1997, a group of Ministers and legislators, led by former Speaker Wahengbam Nipamacha, broke away from the ruling Congress(I) headed by Rishang Keishing and floated the Manipur State Congress Party (MSCP), which subsequently formed the next government.

This time around, the leaders of most parties have said that they are averse to pre-poll alliances and seat-sharing talks. They would rather wait until the results are declared before entering into any kind of alliance. This implies the inevitability of another coalition government. Such a coalition of convenience may not survive a full term, going by the track record of the various coalitions that have ruled Manipur.

With each party fighting independently, there will be multi-cornered contests in all the constituencies - 40 in the valley and 20 in the hills. Polling will be held on February 14 in the valley and on February 21 in the hills.

After the 2000 elections, the MSCP, which won 29 seats, instigated defections. Nine MLAs from the Opposition, including the Manipur People's Party (MPP) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), joined it. Thus Nipamacha formed a Ministry in coalition with the Federal Party of Manipur (FPM), which won six seats. But the government was wobbly from Day One.

The MSCP-FPM government did not last more than a year. Nipamacha resigned in February 2001, paving the way for a new coalition government headed by Samata Party leader Radhabinode Koijam. The Samata Party, which only won one seat in the last elections, had increased its strength to 12 after 10 of the 11 Congress(I) MLAs, under the leadership of Congress(I) Legislature Party leader Koijam, joined it. Koijam was supported by all Opposition MLAs except the lone Congress(I) legislator, Rishang Keishing. Although the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Samata Party are partners in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre, the BJP with six MLAs did not join the Koijam government. Instead, it supported the government from the outside.

R.K. Dorendra of the BJP.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Meanwhile the MSCP faced a split, following a bout of infighting between Nipamacha and Th. Chaoba, a former Union Minister. The group led by Chaoba was recognised as the real MSCP as per a High Court order. Nipamacha then formed the Manipur National Conference (MNC). (He is contesting this time from his home constituency of Wangoi.) As a result of the internal bickering, 18 MSCP MLAs joined the BJP. Later the total strength of the BJP became 26 when two more MLAs from the FPM joined it.

A fresh crisis soon surfaced, with the BJP wanting to join the government of the Samata Party on condition that the new coalition government would be led by the BJP and that Koijam step down as Chief Minister in favour of BJP leader R.K. Dorendra. However, that was not acceptable to the State unit of the Samata Party. The issue was referred to the high commands of the two parties. But even the intervention of BJP leader L.K. Advani and Samata Party president George Fernandes could not resolve the crisis.

Koijam had then told Frontline that his party had offered the posts of the Deputy Chief Minister and the Speaker to the BJP and had requested it to allow the Samata Party to keep the post of the Chief Minister. This offer was turned down by the BJP. "There was also an offer to rotate the chief ministership between the two parties every two years. This was also rejected," Koijam said. The three-month-long Koijam government collapsed when BJP MLAs voted for a no-confidence motion against Koijam. Manipur was brought under President's Rule on June 3, 2001, but the option of exploring the possibility of forming a popular government remained open. The Assembly was kept in suspended animation.

Immediately after Koijam's fall, Dorendra and some other BJP legislators from the State rushed to Delhi to convince central leaders that the BJP was capable of forming an alternative government with the help of some regional parties. But the Samata Party did not take this step too kindly. The party's central leaders, particularly Fernandes, who is also the convener of the NDA, and Nitish Kumar, even threatened to pull out of the NDA if the BJP's central leaders succumbed to pressure from its Manipur unit. At one stage, the Samata Party also threatened to withdraw support to the BJP-led government in Jharkhand headed by Babulal Marandi. Finally, at a meeting of Samata Party and BJP leaders in Delhi in the presence of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Home Minister L.K. Advani it was decided that neither the BJP nor the Samata would be in the race for power in Manipur.

Meanwhile, a number of political formations came up, each claiming to have the required majority to form the government. Before sending his report to the Centre for the imposition of President's Rule, Governor Ved Prakash Marwah told mediapersons in Imphal that he had listened to the arguments of all political formations but none had been able to convince him fully. Hence, he said, he had recommended President's Rule.

SHORTLY after President's Rule was imposed, the State faced extreme unrest, following the agreement of June 14, 2001 between the Centre and the outlawed National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah) to extend a ceasefire beyond Nagaland to all Naga-inhabited areas in Manipur and other northeastern States. To Manipuris (or Meities), this agreement seemed like a step towards accepting the NSCN(I-M)'s demand for a "greater Nagaland". Mobs set fire to the State Assembly building, government offices and the houses of political leaders in Imphal and also in other parts of the State. However, peace was restored when the particular clause - ceasefire without territorial limit - in the agreement was dropped.

Former Union Minister Th. Chaoba Singh campaigning for the MSCP candidate Kh. Devabrata Singh in the Thangmeiband constituency.-

Not surprisingly, the main campaign issue for all political parties in the coming elections is the protection of the territorial integrity of Manipur. In fact, this has marginalised all other issues.

All 60 MLAs of the last Assembly are in the fray, but most of them do not represent the same parties that they did last time. While the Congress(I) is contesting all the 60 seats, the FPM has fielded 51 candidates, the BJP 48, the MSCP 43, the Samata Party 33 and the MPP 19.

In the face of threats from insurgent groups, no party has held big campaign rallies or invited its national leaders. Instead, they have organised small meetings at the local level. Stalwarts in the fray, apart from Rishang Keishing of the Congress(I) are Koijam (Samata Party), R.K. Dorendra (BJP), W. Nipamacha (MNC), former Speaker Sapam Dhananjoy (NCP), Leishangthem Chandramani, and Ch. Priyokumar (both of the FPM), Okhram Joy (MPP), former Minister of State H. Lokhon Singh and Bijoy Koijam (both of the MSCP).

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