We have a saying in Manipuri, which translates to “when you want a successful person to fail in life, goad on to contest in electoral politics”.
This sums up best how politicians are perceived in the state. And yet, every time an election comes knocking on the door, everyone and their relative gets into the thick of things: be it as onlookers or gatecrashers, as the in-house expert spouting the latest political gossip or getting into boisterous arguments on who gets to win and lose by how much at cha hotens, the small tea stalls with basic seating that dot the state’s landscape.
Elections as a 'Spectacle'
For people in Manipur, the elections equate to ‘kumhei’, or festival, but the English word that comes closest to the meaning and the ethos of how they are perceived is ‘spectacle’.
Elections mean a good time to make some money and partake of endless rounds of feasts, or to get money from potential and actual candidates later to organise community entertainment programmes like Shumang Leelas (literally leela, or drama, played in the courtyard by professional groups accompanied by lighting and sound effects), which have been taken to fancier locations like common playgrounds or community halls.
For the many women who live with the drudgery of housework and domestic responsibilities, it is an occasion to get out the best innaphi, the upper drape for women, or a shawl, depending on the weather and the location (innaphi are lighter and are worn by meiteis mostly) and to take part in some serious chatter and theatrics.
Theatrics and politics? Oh yes, this happens in Manipur. Emotions, sentiment and tears play an integral part in who gets the vote. They are such an important factor that popular dialogues in films and drama lampoon how electoral candidates keep a keen eye on who is unwell, has passed away, given birth or is getting married, so they can make an appearance.
The demise of a person in an assembly constituency means a legitimate excuse to hand over money as poyeng, the amount given to a family to help tide over expenses related to rites of passage: birth, marriage, death etc. The joke is that the Minister or MLA you don’t get to meet at any point in your life would come to attend your death ritual, for sure.
My grandfather’s favourite election and politician-related joke was how this candidate sends out an acolyte to keep note of deaths in the constituency, but when he goes to pay condolences, he realises belatedly that it is the pet cat that has died.
That there are rules and election codes regarding exchanging money for votes is a myth in Manipur. The exchange of cash is a reality, so much so that political commentators, and even political candidates, publicly appeal to the public at large, saying, “Ok, please take money from everyone but choose your candidate wisely.” As simple as that. We are pragmatic people, I tell you. Oh, and the Election Commission has a category called ‘money-sensitive constituencies’, in case you didn’t know.
Bullets, Ballots and Parachute Journalism
What about the various armed separatist groups operating in Manipur who give calls for severing ties with India? What happens when they issue diktats to the public not to take part in elections? Simple: people just go out and vote. Nothing can stop the people from getting inked at the polling booths. This time around, political parties are openly calling out one another for using certain armed groups to threaten the supporters of opposing candidates. But the thing is, these instances will be used to heighten the drama and appeal for voter support.
The electoral participation in Manipur is such that even members of armed groups that are in talks with the government of India and who are set up in government-designated camps get to vote via postal ballots. Does all of this then mean that people in Manipur believe in democracy and everything ‘India’? No. The same people who go out in large numbers to vote will also be the ones to take things headlong if there are instances of high-handedness (real or perceived) against them by either the ruling party or the opposition, the state or the Central government.
Elections are a heady drug in Manipur. How else can one explain the fact that a state that boils on the street in protest over human rights violations or over sexual crimes, over political demands by various civil society groups, one where its numerous armed separatist groups talk about ‘independence’ and ‘plebiscites’ and cutting ties off with India, shows up on polling day with figures that touch more than 90 per cent for attendance and participation in casting their votes?
No psephologist on earth, and certainly no political strategist, can work out a winning formula for the electoral landscape in Manipur, where party ideologies matter neither to the candidates nor the voters.
Money is a factor, but spread a rumour or a real anecdote about someone who’s been slighted or insulted by a family member of the candidate or his top party worker, and the votes will turn faster than you can type ‘voting trends in Manipur’.
When Dark Horses Win
Public sentiment and sympathy is another solid reason at times for rank dark horses emerging as winners in the electoral scene. This happens when electoral candidates keep on contesting and getting defeated and the voters decide, “Ok, let’s make this one win, for once."
My maternal grandfather, who had worked his entire life as a truck driver, found himself poorer by two of the three Bedford trucks that he had managed to buy second-hand for himself: he had wagered against a particular candidate winning in his home constituency. The said person had never won despite numerous attempts and was considered a jinx when it came to elections. My grandfather thought the said candidate would lose yet again, but the public was ‘moved’ by his repeated attempts and he got elected by a very small margin.
Women play an important role in elections – they are the vote magnets on account of the emotions they bring on board and their sheer number (the state has more women voters than men voters). You see them turning up in huge numbers to attend election rallies and meetings, you see them on polling day and at polling booths.
You don’t see much of them as candidates, but that is another story that parachute journalists do not really get as they remain seduced by the idea of a non-existent ‘matriarchal’ Manipuri society.
The line that divides what women do and where and in what capacity is so marked that you don’t even see women political commentators being part of any electoral discussions and TV programmes in the Manipur media.
The 'Athenpot Thinba’
Another parachute media interest in the Manipur election coverage this time happens to be what is known as the ‘Athenpot thinba’, where women take out long processions bearing rice, vegetables, fruits and sweetmeats on their heads, carrying them in ‘phirook’, traditional cane containers used for auspicious ceremonies, or on trays, to the electoral candidate’s house.
I am tickled that much of the coverage is on how this is practice is being interpreted as ‘support’. Traditionally, ‘athenpot thinba’ is part of the marriage ceremonies of the Meiteis, which has now been co-opted to the electoral scene as a visual show of support, but is just stage-managed optics. Except for friends, family and acquaintances and business houses who keep their financial contributions towards election candidates under wraps for obvious reasons (tax issues et al), no other person will be caught dead trying to give cash or kind.
The never-ending procession that the women bring as ‘athenpot’ (handing of gifts) to electoral candidates on the occasion of ‘flag-hoisting’ ceremonies (again, a very Manipur thing) are financed by the party or the candidate, or a party worker/supporter, and a majority of the women actually get paid to take part in it. You would find a lot of women doing the same for other candidates as well.
After the Elections
Once the elections are done and dusted in Manipur, depending on the number of seats the political parties are able to get their hands on, there will be a round of much scheming and the making and breaking up of political alliances. The statements of “we will win on our own” and “our party is the best” evolve into very different scenarios when the seat count shows numbers that do not work out for any one party. All said and done, the Manipur electoral scene has more masala and mystery, and even elements of ‘what the hell happened’.
The state has had a long history with President’s rule being imposed more times than an actual government lasting for a full term. While the former is no longer prevalent, the ever-changing political winds in the state have led to very short-lived governments at the helm.
The shortest stint as the Chief Minister of Manipur happens to be part of family lore: my paternal grandmother’s uncle was in the hot seat for a mere 11 days before the party he belonged to, the Manipur United Front, went bust and President’s Rule was imposed. This happened in the early 1960s. And you thought the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s stint of 13 days as Prime Minister in 1996 was news?
It remains to be seen just what – and how many – turns the Manipur Assembly election will take this time.
(Chitra Ahanthem is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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