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2022 Manipur Polls: Can BJP Survive as Miffed Leaders Jump Ship?

As many as 11 MLAs formerly with the Congress have been given BJP tickets, leaving other party members high and dry.

6 min read
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From being a party with no political presence in Manipur till its formation of a state unit in 1980, the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has come about not by ideology or an alignment to its core Hindutva belief systems but because it is in power at the Centre. It took the party 15 long years to bag a single seat in the 60-member Manipur State Assembly. The maximum number of MLAs representing the party stood at six till the Assembly elections of 2017, when it emerged as the second political party with 21 seats, behind the Congress’s 28. But it was the BJP that went on to form the government instead of the Congress, which emerged as the single-largest party. In fact, even at the time of the 2017 Assembly elections, coming on the heels of three consecutive terms with Congress at the helm, the BJP candidates were mostly former Congress and All India Trinamool Congress MLAs.

Cut to 2022 and the BJP in Manipur is bursting at its seams with imports from different political parties, leading to a long delay in its announcement of electoral candidates, with such intense scrutiny over who would make it and at whose cost, that various fake lists were being circulated on social media and leaked to the media in the run-up to the actual candidate list that came out on 30 January.

With 11 former Congress MLAs making it as party candidates – at the cost of others who had contested as bonafide BJP candidates in the earlier election or who had been working towards a ticket as party workers – there is a huge churn amongst the public at large, leading to angry outbursts.

The Contest Between RK Imo and Kh Loken

Protests have been erupting on the streets in various parts of Manipur, notably in Sagolband constituency, where the Manipur Chief Minister’s son in law, RK Imo, has been given a ticket. RK Imo had earlier been elected on a Congress ticket in the 2017 elections defeating Kh Loken of the BJP by a slim margin of 19 votes. Within minutes of the announcement, a large section of BJP party supporters took to the streets, shouting slogans and hurling the choicest of abuse at the BJP leadership in the state and at the Centre. Many denounced the claims of the Chief Minister and the party that it would never encourage dynasty politics, pointing out how the Chief Minister has favoured his son-in-law over a long-term party representative; they burned BJP flags and banners, leading to tear gas shelling by the police. Kh Loken has since joined the Janata Dal (U), taking along with him a sizeable chunk of registered party workers who resigned en masse.

And though similar situations have emerged in other constituencies as well, what makes the contest between RK Imo and Kh Loken worth a watch is that Sagolband constituency has never elected an MLA for consecutive terms. Adding to that, the emotional outpouring over the ‘injustice’ of who has been given the BJP ticket is going to play a huge factor.


A Game of Musical Chairs

Several other rounds of musical chairs are being played in other constituencies, too. In Moirang, the incumbent BJP MLA, P Saratchandra, a former IAS officer, has been left adrift, while M Prithiviraj, a former Congress MLA and Minister, is now the BJP face. P Saratchandra had earlier filed an election petition case against Prithiviraj citing that the latter had submitted a fake educational certificate to the returning officer by wrongfully mentioning his educational qualification in the election affidavit. The two have now flipped their parties, while ground supporters are getting into skirmishes and name-calling.

At the time of writing, 11 MLAs formerly with the Congress have been given BJP tickets, leaving other party members high and dry, including many BJP stalwarts who have occupied posts within the party, along with new faces who had been working to strengthen the party in the past five years.

But it isn’t just MLAs from the Congress crossing over to the BJP. Tongbram Robindro, the only Trinamool Congress MLA who had supported the Congress in an attempt last year to topple the BJP government, is now the BJP candidate for Thanga constituency instead of M Asinikumar, who has been a state party functionary and the BJP candidate in the 2017 Assembly elections.

A former Lok Janshakti Party MLA, Karam Shyam, who joined the BJP a mere ten days prior to the BJP candidate list, is now the party’s candidate.

The BJP has three women candidates on its list : Nemcha Kipgen, looking for a consecutive third term as MLA; Soraisam Kebi making her first entry after piping the earlier BJP MLA who the party had disqualified; and SS Olish, who is contesting for the third time after her earlier two attempts, first as an Independent candidate in 2012 and then representing the BJP in 2017.


Why Discontent With BJP is Crucial

A surprise turnaround is the case of the Patsoi constituency, which has fielded Sapam Kunjakeswor Singh, better known as Keba, as its BJP candidate this time. In the 2017 elections, Keba had caused quite a stir when he demanded that the central BJP leadership reimburse the money he had spent in the wake of organising Prime Minister’s Narendra Modi electoral visit to the state and the donation he had made for the construction of the party office in Imphal. The demand came in the wake of him being denied the BJP ticket, which went to S Premananda Sharma, the son of one of the main founders of the party in Manipur and who was also a member of both the VHP and the RSS. Keba contested for a regional political party then and lost to the incumbent Congress MLA by a margin of 114 votes, while Premananda was a distant third.

Keba’s return to the BJP fold this time marks a rare happy ending of sorts in the current atmosphere of outrage in the state, while putting to rest the possibility of P Premananda occupying centre stage in the BJP political firmament.

All things considered, the current outrage and disappointments over the allocation of BJP tickets will play a major factor in deciding which way the vote swings in every constituency across the state, where voters are not aligned to a party or its ideology per se but to the candidate. As of now, political parties like the National People’s Party (NPP) and the Janata Dal (U) are making the most of the situation by openly inviting those who failed to get a BJP ticket to their fold, while the Congress seems to be the least favourite political party right now as a fall-back option. Both the NPP and JD(U) are allies of the BJP at the national level, though the NPP unit in Manipur with its four MLAs have had a run-in with the Biren government last year, leading to a measure of friction.

Congress Is in the Backseat

Strangely enough, the Congress, which is going all out in other states that are going to the polls in a make-or-break streak in its fight against the BJP, is on the back seat in Manipur.

Its national leaders have neither made any overtures towards the electorate nor tried to reach out to any of the major players who have been turned away by the BJP, a total contrast to how things have been playing out in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Goa and Uttrakhand.


The Biren-Biswajit Dynamics

Political analysts in Manipur are reading the BJP candidate list as a reflection of the internal rivalry between Chief Minister N Biren and Thongam Biswajit. N Biren left the Congress to join the BJP just before the 2017 elections, while Thongam Biswajit, a former Trinamool MLA, has been with the BJP a little longer, having joined in 2015 following a by-election. N Biren is seen as a more dynamic and aggressive personality, bringing on board long years of experience and associations with student bodies and various other organisations. Biswajit, on the other hand, is soft-spoken but is certainly no push-over. When four MLAs of the NPP who were a part of the outgoing BJP government withdrew their support, leading to a situation with a few other BJP MLAs crossing the floor, the move was attributed to Biswajit.

Biren prevailed then and the BJP candidate list now is being seen as one that is in favour of Biren and vice-versa. The Biren-Biswajit dynamics will be worth watching, with both maintaining an affable and working relationship in public even as the rift is an open secret. The entry of Congress leader Govindas Konthoujam to the BJP camp adds the extra spice to the Biren-Biswajit angle as Govindas aspirations for the Chief Ministerial seat is public knowledge. A lot depends on how the BJP candidates fare and how many sail through. But two thing are for sure – the forthcoming Manipur Assembly election will have its share of dramatic elements and the clamour for BJP tickets will change when electoral fortunes change at the Centre.

(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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