Most exit polls for the Manipur assembly elections for its 60 seats pegged the BJP crossing well over the halfway number, with most national media houses pointing out that the National People’s Party (NPP) or the Janata Dal (U) (JD-U) could play an important role in the scheme of things after the results. What many failed to see was how the fates of candidates across constituencies and across political parties would play out, with heavyweights from the NPP biting the dust and many from the Congress being thwarted. This includes former Deputy Chief Minister Yumnam Joykumar, former Health Minister L Jayantakumar of the NPP, and Gaikhangnam Gangmei, a member of the Congress Working Committee in the state.
The final tally has BJP with a clear majority of 32 seats, followed by NPP with seven, Janata Dal (U) with six, Congress with five, Naga People’s Party with five, Kuki People’s Alliance with two, and three Independent candidates.
Women in the Manipur Assembly
Five women candidates have made it to the Manipur Assembly this time, a historic first – three are from the BJP, one from NPP and one from KPA. Except for Nemcha Kipgen of the BJP, the remaining are going to be first-time MLAs. Does this augur well for women in Manipur politics? Yes, and no. Out of 265 electoral candidates, 17 were women, the first time the number of women contestants in the Assembly elections in the state touched a double-figure.
But five women out of 60 elected MLAs is still a dismal 8%. Will all the three women BJP MLAs get ministerial seats? It’s going to be an interesting watch, more so as Nemcha Kipgen, who was Minister for Social Welfare in the outgoing Manipur government, was dropped from the Cabinet in 2020.
SS Ollish (BJP), who won from the Chandel constituency, had earlier contested for the 2012 and 2017 elections as well, while Soraisam Kebi of Naoriya Pakhanglakpa (BJP) is a first-time electoral contestant. It would be presumptuous to expect all the three BJP women MLAs to be given ministerial posts. The remaining two will be in the Opposition: Irengbam Ongbi Nalini of the NPP, whose win in the Oinam constituency is most likely the result of a sympathy wave following the demise of her husband Irengbam Ibohalbi (an MLA in the 2012 Manipur Assembly), and Kimneo Haokip Hangshing, the KPA candidate (Saikul constituency).
Is the Congress Loss Reversible?
The loss of the Congress in Manipur is not the death knell of the party, though it does look like it now with the party not getting the numbers even to lead the opposition in the Assembly. It gave a spirited fight against the BJP’s muscle-flexing, from the brazen manner it courted sitting Congress MLAs to getting the backing of the Kuki National Organization, an armed group which is in a trilateral Suspension of Operations with the government of India and the government of Manipur, as signatories.
More than the performance of the Congress, which was hit by defections to the BJP, the lack of numbers for the NPP looks more damaging to the prospect of the party in the state, with more new faces winning and seasoned names falling by the wayside.
The Congress will revive at some point in time, and that is the only consolation it can take from its drubbing.
Who Will be the Chief Minister?
While the BJP has the numbers now, the total seat count in its kitty has sprung up a few surprises and a few disappointments, including Oinam Lukhoi Singh and Laishram Radhakishore, who were trounced by their respective competing candidates from the NPP. Those thinking that the BJP got a majority in the Manipur assembly due to good governance or as a result of a Modi or BJP wave in the state are seeing too much, for political fortunes will change again.
And those claiming that ‘good governance’ during N Biren’s stint as Chief Minister was the major factor for the win are deliberately ignoring that the state government has been unable to pay salaries and pensions to government employees on time. In fact, the next five years are going to be an interesting spell, with BJP MLAs being in power on their own and having no other ally or party to blame for its non-performance. This would come, of course, after the next questions are answered, of who gets the hot seat of the Chief Minister and of the distribution of ministerial seats.
All the winning MLAs have been very cautious in their post-election win statements regarding the race for the Chief Minister, each claiming that it is the central party committee that will take the final call. But it is no secret that the incumbent Chief Minister, N Biren, is eyeing a second term, even as Thongam Biswajit fancies a shot at it. Throw in former Congress strongman Govindas Konthoujam who is a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and joined the BJP very recently, and you get a three-cornered contest that will be keenly watched.
The grapevine in Manipur says the incumbent MLA of Singjamei, the former speaker Y Khemchand, is also eying the hot chair. All eyes will be on the deciding hand, the BJP’s central leadership.
What Did the People of Manipur Vote For?
So, what did the people of Manipur vote for? Did they cast their votes against or for any political parties, or for the various promises that were being made? Did they go for the popular faces, or was it just about the money? There is no one answer that can explain why the poll results are the way they are in Manipur.
The BJP did not talk about repealing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in the state, an emotive issue as well as a political demand that has been getting amplified over the years.
The promises that it had made in the party manifesto for the previous elections have still not been realised, and there is no indication that anything in their manifesto this time will come to fruition.
The last-minute election rally by Union Home Minister Amit Shah in the state raised many eyebrows with regard to his statement that the Central government will get into peace talks with all insurgent groups given how major ones like the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and the People's Liberation Army (PLA), besides many others, have refused to do so for decades.
Elected representatives have been quick to say that their focus will be on the development of their constituencies and Manipur, a statement that is generic and shies away from making any commitment towards specific actions. It is a sign of how the next five years will translate for the people of Manipur: meaningless and uneventful.
(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.)