The Bharatiya Janata Party in Manipur under the leadership of chief minister N Biren Singh has achieved a single-party majority, winning 32 of the state’s 60 seats. It is a feat that appeared unlikely in the run-up to the poll, which saw several disgruntled BJP ticket aspirants leaving the party.
But in the end, it was a feat that became possible because of the same phenomenon that has enabled the rise of the BJP all over India: the total and spectacular collapse of the Indian National Congress.
While the fall of the Congress in Punjab in the recent assembly election has attracted comment, its decimation in Manipur is hardly any less remarkable. The party – which was the largest in the state assembly with 28 seats in the last election in 2017 – has finished in fourth place this time, behind the BJP, the National People’s Party led by Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma, and the Janata Dal (United) led by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar.
The JDU is a party that had no presence in the state to speak of until around a month before the poll. It did not even contest the 2017 assembly election in Manipur.
The Congress, the governing party until 2017, has won only five seats this time, the same number as the Naga People’s Front. This fall of 23 seats in the assembly of 60 from its 2017 tally was more than enough for the BJP to romp home to victory.
The collapse of the Congress becomes even more stark when one looks into the data on individual constituencies.
In Yasikul, a constituency that attracted attention because of the presence in the fray of former police officer Thounaojam Brinda, the BJP’s T Satyabrata Singh won by a mere 632 votes, defeating his nearest rival, H Vikramjit Singh of the NPP. Brinda, running on a JDU ticket, came in third, while the Congress candidate finished fourth, polling only 526 votes.
Similarly, in the constituency of Andro, there was a close contest between the BJP and NPP, with the BJP candidate winning by a margin of 1,457 votes. The Congress candidate polled 388.
In Keirao, incidentally a place with a noticeable Muslim minority, the BJP’s L Rameshwor Meetei won comfortably over his nearest NPP rival, Md Nasiruddin Khan. The Congress candidate polled 249 votes. One would be tempted to put this down to religious polarisation, between the predominantly Hindu Meitei and the Manipuri Muslim Pangal communities, but polarisation cannot explain the fact that even in neighbouring Lilong, a Muslim-dominated constituency where all the candidates were Muslims, the race was between Mohd Abdul Nasir of the JDU and Antas Khan of the BJP. The Congress candidate, Anwar Hussain, got 445 votes.
This decimation of the Congress is visible even in the Manipur hills, where the Naga and Kuki tribes, both devout Bible-thumping Christians for the most part, dominate. While the NPF won five of the Naga-majority seats, the Kuki People’s Alliance, a new party that launched barely a month before the poll, contested only two seats in the Kuki areas – and won both. In one of these seats, Singhat, the race was between the KPA and the BJP, while in the other, it was between the KPA and two independents. The Congress candidate polled less than 500 votes in one and less than 1,000 in the other.
The Congress had earlier said it would be approaching the Supreme Court after a conglomerate of local militant outfits, the Kuki National Organisation, asked voters to vote for the BJP. Congress leader Jairam Ramesh had pointed out that militant groups had been paid Rs 15.72 crore on February 1 and Rs 92 lakh on March 1 from funds released by the Manipur government and the union home Ministry. While this may have influenced the electoral outcome, the KPA did manage to win against BJP rivals despite the odds.
There is once again much theorising and hand-wringing among liberal circles in India on the death of Indian secularism after the latest state election results in five states. A closer look at places such as Northeast India or Goa, which are quite different from the cow belt, would indicate that the role of money and desire of professional politicians to remain proximate to power are probably more significant factors than any ideology.
An example may help illustrate the point. In 2014, Arunachal Pradesh had simultaneous polls for the Lok Sabha and state assembly. The Congress won 42 of the 60 assembly seats. Meanwhile, the BJP had won a handsome victory at the national level, and prime minister Narendra Modi had come to power at the centre. By 2016, the Congress was reduced to one member in the Arunachal assembly. The rest of the party, from the chief minister down, had become the BJP.
The story is repeated in several other states, where the old Congress is the new BJP. Even in Manipur, by now the majority of the BJP MLAs, from CM Biren Singh down, are former Congressmen. The new BJP MLAs include former Manipur Congress president Govindas Konthoujam, a veteran who won his seat for the seventh time. His race was against a JDU rival, Oinam Nabakishore Singh, a former chief secretary of Manipur who had joined the Congress after retirement and unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha election on a Congress ticket in 2019 before joining the BJP in 2020. He then joined the JDU last month, after being denied a BJP ticket to contest this assembly election. Each of these parties presumably has a different ideology, but that is clearly a minor detail both for the politicians and their supporters.
The sudden, almost magical appearance of a well-funded JDU on the scene at the last moment played a role in dividing the anti-incumbency vote which might otherwise have consolidated behind the opposition including rivals such as the NPP. In several constituencies which saw close contests, the presence of a strong JDU candidate almost certainly helped the BJP candidate squeak through.
The JDU was not the only unlikely party in the fray; there was also another new entrant and BJP ally, the Republican Party of India (Athavale) headed by union minister Ramdas Athavale, whose candidates polled a good number of votes in three constituencies.
The BJP also ensured the presence in Manipur during the campaigning of its non-resident Manipuri supporters based in other states and even other countries. It has long had total dominance of the national and local media, including social media. It had a catchy campaign song and music video, Thambal, meaning lotus – the party symbol. In short, it had the organisation and resources to win.
The BJP has demonstrated its success in indoctrinating its voters into bhakts who did not switch sides even when their own friends and family members died gasping for oxygen during the Covid second wave. It excels at retaining voters, in sharp contrast to the Congress. The absence of any single viable national-level opposition alternative means that the only real contest for political space now is between the BJP and regional parties. This includes both BJP allies like the NPP in Northeast India and rivals like the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi and Punjab, apart from others like the Trinamool Congress, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Telangana Rashtra Samithi.
The Congress, meanwhile, is plainly unable to hold on to either its voters or its MLAs and MPs. Its plight is that of a torture victim from an Ajit joke, in which the Bollywood villain Ajit tells a henchman, “Isko liquid oxygen mein dal do...liquid isko jeene nahin dega, aur oxygen isko marne nahin dega.” (Put this fellow in liquid oxygen. The liquid won’t let him live, the oxygen won’t let him die.)
Suspended between life and death, it keeps a new opposition from being born.