Emergence of mercenary politics in Manipur

Many new entrants who are tipped to win have decided that their best prospects for bagging ministerial positions would be as mercenaries aligned with small parties.

Published: 25th October 2021 12:30 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th October 2021 12:09 AM   |  A+A-

Manipur CM N Biren Singh

Manipur CM N Biren Singh (Photo | PTI)

Elections to the Manipur Legislative Assembly are barely five months away. Although the dates still have not been announced, it cannot be later than March 15, the day the current Assembly came alive in 2017. The election mood in the state is understandably building up. News of election-related skirmishes are already becoming routine, with opposing groups of supporters of prospective candidates targeting each other, often violently. If it is not this, then the news is about prominent politicians shifting party loyalties in obvious calculations of their personal electoral prospects. The pattern has also been for certain local leaders to project themselves as 'intending candidates' of a political party and campaign, even though no party has as yet named their candidates. Such is the enthusiasm and the likely intensity with which the coming elections would be fought.

There is another interesting development amidst all this, which can be read, among others, as a consequence of an unhealthy incentive introduced during the high-drama government formation contest immediately after the last elections in 2017. In that case, the Congress had emerged as the single largest party with 28 seats in the 60-member House, followed by the BJP with 21. The then Governor, Najma Heptulla, for reasons that are anybody's guess, decided to ignore the single largest party and gave the first opportunity to form the government to the BJP. The party ultimately did manage to stitch together a multi-party coalition, which included a Congress MLA who switched loyalty on day one but was never treated as a defector until the Supreme Court intervened three years later to ban him from entering the Assembly complex.

Even if it were to be agreed that in politics, fair can be foul and foul fair, what naturally followed thereafter has caused an important shift in the goalpost of Manipur's political game, one that is currently playing out ahead of the forthcoming 2022 election. Many bright new entrants into the political arena who are strongly tipped to win are actually opting for parties that are predicted to emerge as kingmakers rather than the frontrunners, the ruling BJP and the main opposition Congress. Their obvious calculation is, should they win as part of the team of either of these two parties, even if it ultimately emerges with the number to form the new government, it is unlikely they would get a ministerial berth as these parties are already crowded with their own veterans. Hence, they have decided that their best prospects for bagging ministerial positions would be as political mercenaries aligned with the smaller parties. Their bet is that a hung verdict is the most likely outcome, hence they would be in a position to join whichever party emerges as the single largest, seeking allies to form the next government. Of course, they will extract their pounds of flesh.

This pound of flesh was grotesquely substantial during the formation of the last government. The BJP, with only 21 seats of its own, had to enlist the support of at least 10 more MLAs to cross the majority mark. The Congress, by contrast, would have needed just three more but the Governor had other plans. The BJP ultimately won over the National People's Party with four seats and all of them were given ministerial berths, including that of deputy chief minister; the Naga People's Front had four and got two ministerial berths; the Lok Janshakti Party had one but still got a ministerial berth; then there was the controversial Congress turncoat who too was made a minister till the SC axe fell on him. Manipur's Cabinet size ceiling specified by the 10th Schedule being 12 including the chief minister, the ruling BJP was left with only four berths, including the chief minister. Fortunately for the saffron party, most of its MLAs then were first-timers and therefore not too ambitious. In the four and half years that have gone by, things have changed and many of the party's own MLAs who were left-empty handed may not find it easy to retain their seats. Some may not even get the party ticket.

There is another curiously self-nourishing fallout from the emergence of such mercenary politics. The very fact of many promising new entrants, as well as some veterans, opting out of the two main parties is strengthening the possibility of a hung Assembly, despite the claims by both the BJP and the Congress that they would manage a clear majority on their own. Since seats are now most likely going to be shared between multiple parties, the prospect of a single party majority has diminished considerably. Predictions are, the splintering of the electorate will get even more acute once the parties in the fray announce their candidates. At the moment, each of the frontrunner parties, in particular the ruling BJP, have several aspirants vying for tickets for each of the 60 constituencies. Those who ultimately lose out in this race may opt for other smaller parties.

While there can never be a foolproof election result prediction and one or the other parties can actually win a majority of seats, the popular anticipation is that the seeds for a splintered verdict sown at the end of the last election by the then Governor has left a demon that may not be easy for Manipur to exorcise anytime soon. The state may have to prepare to live with a new brand of politics of mercenary coalition and normalised political disloyalty - at least till another tectonic shift in attitude comes about.

(The writer is editor of Imphal Review of Arts and Politics. He can be contacted via mail at phanjoubam@gmail.com)

India Matters


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