During the Manipur state election campaign of 2017, reigning three-time chief minister O Ibobi Singh was asked by this reporter what his chances were of retaining the chair as, just months earlier, another three-time Congress CM, Tarun Gogoi, was shown the door after a 15-year rule in Assam. "This is not Assam or Arunachal," Singh replied.
"This is Manipur, and I will be back."
When the results came out, the Congress had won 28 seats in a 60-member house, but could not muster the support of three more MLAs needed to form the government. Instead, the first Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was formed in the state under the leadership of N Biren Singh. Three years later, Ibobi Singh yet again finds himself within the touching distance of the chair, but this time he hardly had any role to play in it.
With nine MLAs withdrawing their support from the government, the internal feud which was going on in the Manipur’s ruling coalition is out in the open. This revolt has three key players: the chief minister, his deputy Y Joykumar Singh, who is an MLA from the National People’s Party (NPP) and a former director general of police, and Th Biswajit Singh, senior BJP leader.
Biswajit and Biren Singh have been at loggerheads from the very beginning. The MLA had even led a number of delegations to the party high command, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah, asking for Biren Singh to be replaced to save the government in the state. He had blamed the chief minister’s high-handedness and autocratic style of functioning for the fallout.
The root of this problem precedes the 2017 assembly elections. When K Joykisan Singh, the first BJP MLA in Manipur, defected to the Congress, many assumed Biswajit was the de-facto choice as the face of the party. But then the BJP decided to bring in a former senior minister of the Ibobi government, N Biren Singh. That put paid to Biswajit’s hopes of bagging the chief minister’s chair.
While the feud of the three bigwigs has been on since 2017, it reached a tipping point last year when the CM stripped these two men of their key portfolios. It took the North-East Democratic Alliance and senior BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma’s repeated visits to the state to calm the fragile egos. The revolt was nipped and the government lived to see another day.
The issue shot up again in April this year, when Joykumar was stripped of his portfolios again. This time it was because he called the chief minister’s food security assurance a ‘hogwash’ and claimed that rice allocated to his constituency was just not enough.
Around this time, government spokesperson and BJP legislator S Rajen dared Joykumar and his three other MLAs to quit the government if they were unhappy with CM Biren SIngh. The calculation was that in the 59-member assembly, the BJP and allies had 37 members, and if four NPP members withdrew, the government would still be in majority.
April being the lockdown month, the BJP could not rush senior party leaders to the state. The chief troubleshooter, Himanta Biswa Sarma, being the health minister of Assam, was also busy fighting the Covid-19 menace in the state.
And that turned out to be calamitous for Biren Singh. Not only did the four members of NPP quit the government, three BJP MLAs resigned, too, to join the Congress, and the two other MLAs from Trinamool Congress and Independents withdrew support from the party as well.
Now the number 37 got reduced to 28. The party had to fly in Biswa Sarma , who came with the NPP national head and Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma. They flew in and out on the same day, but helped the party win the Rajya Sabha elections. This victory, however, had more to do with a favourable court order and a cooperative Speaker. There still remains a huge question mark on the survival of the government.
However, after visiting Manipur, Biswa Sarma told the media in Guwahati that the government would be safe and that “…the architecture will be a bit different but more or less, we are continuing with the principle of friendship and the spirit of NEDA and NDA”, hinting at a possibility of a change in chief minister to save the government. Some of the NPP MLAs had also hinted at possible support to the BJP if the CM is changed.
The Congress, on the other hand, is planning to take the legal recourse. The loss of the Rajya Sabha election was a big setback, but the party has not given up hope of forming the government. It is angry at how three of their seven turncoat MLAs facing disqualification were allowed to vote while the rest were disqualified. Reacting to the turn of events, Ibobi Singh said, “When all the MLAs are in the same case for the same reason, how could the Speaker disqualify only four? It is a very shameful act.”
What happens next in the Manipur thriller is getting difficult to predict, but if this government falls, it would surely be the first government to fall to the coronavirus, or at least the lockdown necessitated by it, which prevented the central leadership of the BJP from taking action in time.