By Yambem Laba
‘The first BJP government in Manipur under N Biren Singh appears to be set for a long innings ahead but he needs to show where he means business’
The outgoing Congress chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh ruled Manipur for 15 years. His bravado against bete noire NSCN (IM) general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah apart, he had much to answer for.
Firstly, the accusation against him from Prime Minister Narendra Modi – that he was the 10 per cent chief minister. The Manipuri people almost tolerated him for the 10 per cent cut, which he supposedly levied on all financial transactions that passed across his desk. And, according to a former accountant-general of Manipur, he has allegedly amassed wealth that can even shame Ali Baba!
When the elections results to the 11th Manipur Legislative Assembly were being announced in mid-March, the BJP was to name its chief ministerial candidate. Till then the pretender to the throne was the octogenarian Thaounajam Chaoba Singh, the state’s veteran politician, who had donned almost all colours of the various political parties in the state and also served as Union minister of state in the previous NDA government under AB Vajpayee. (Some years ago when The Statesman wrote about his activities, in a bid to cover lost ground, he even filed a Rs 50 crore defamation case against the newspaper. Chaoba contested from the Nambol assembly constituency but lost.
Then the race for chief minister became wide open and the choice of the saffron brigade was Nongthongbam Biren Singh, former footballer of the Border Security Force and editor of a Manipuri vernacular daily. He had been an MLA since 2002.
Biren was also a minister in the Ibobi government during its second tenure. Besides being Ibobi’s spokesperson, he was his favourite as well. The BJP secured only 21 seats in the 60-member Assembly against 28 by Ibobi s Congress. The expectation was that Governor Najma Heptullah would invite the Congress – it having the single largest majority- to form a new government But she ignored all constitutional precedence and asked the BJP to form the government
Although Biren is said to have secured just seven votes in his favour against the 14 secured by Thongam Biswajit for the legislature party leadership, the BJP think-tank, in a bid to win a psychological war against the Congress, installed Biren, who was with the Congress till October 2016. It was a marriage of convenience.
Four Naga People’s Front MLAs, whose avowed objective is the balkanisation of Manipur, supported Biren. The others who backed him included the four-member National People’s Party, and one each from the Lok Jana Shakti Party and Trinamool Congress. Then there was the first defector from the Congress, Thaonaojam Shyamkumar. He had earlier served a stint in the Tihar “Guest House” in Delhi but was made a cabinet minister. The deputy chief minister’s post was given to NPP’s Yumnam Joykumar Singh. He is a former director-general of the Manipur police, and is currently under the scanner of the Manipur High Court in the infamous fake encounter case of Manipur, involving the Army and the police over the death of 1,528 people.
The expectations of BJP chief Amit Shah and Union home minister Rajnath Singh, that some Congress MLAs would change colours, came not a day soon. First two Congress legislators deserted and shortly thereafter, four others followed suit. The lone TMC MLA also formally joined the BJP. Thus from 21 in mid-March, the BJP tally has risen up to 29, while the Congress’s strength has depleted to 21.
None of the defectors seems to be worried about attracting the provisions of the 10th Schedule of the Constitution and be disqualified. Either they are sure of being re-elected as BJP legislators or are waiting for more Congress legislators to join them, so as to escape the clauses of the 10th Schedule. Anyway with Governor Najma Heptullah having sworn in a freshly defected legislator as a Cabinet Minister, the green signal seems to have been given from the Raj Bhawan itself, so there seems to be no need for sudden panic. And anyway Speaker Yumnam Khemchand seems to be in no hurry either.
Now that Biren can be said to be firmly in power for over a month, it is time for a quick review. His first notable move was to appease the Nagas, particularly Tangkhuls. There is no love lost between the Tangkhul tribesmen to which Muivah belongs and the Meiteis after Ibobi prevented the NSCN (IM) supremo from entering Manipur through the Mao gate to visit his native village Somdal in Ukhrul in May 2010. So angry were the Tangkhuls that in October last year when Ibobi went to Ukhrul to inaugurate a public hospital, rebels fired at his helicopter, forcing him to make a hasty retreat.
Last month Chief Minister Biren travelled to Ukhrul by road, halting at various places en route and was given rousing welcome. At Ukhrul town he appeared dressed in full Tangkhul Naga warrior attire and won the hearts of the thousands of people gathered there at theTangkhul Naga Long grounds. He announced a welfare package of Rs 100 crore for the development of Ukhrul and another Rs 1 crore for the Shirui Lilly Tourism festival, slated later this month.
After a few days, he visited Kangpokpi, the heartland of the Kukis. On November 1 the pro-NSCN (IM) Manipur-based United Naga Council, had imposed an indefinite economic blockade of the state’s two vital national highways in protest against the Ibobi government’s decision to create a separate district with headquarters at Kangpokpi, a Kuki-dominated area in the Naga-majority Senapati district. The blockade was lifted within five days of Biren taking over.
Once there the chief minister was accorded an even bigger welcome. He was carried to the meeting site on a Kuki tribal palanquin. There he announced a special package worth over Rs 120 crore. While it raised the Kukis’ spirits, it must have come as a dampener to the Nagas who had been demanding the rollback of the creation of this district as it was carved out of the Naga majority Senapati district.
All such political theatrics apart, Biren has announced that he will go all out against corruption. But all that he has been able to do so far is to post two officers to handle complaints who forward them to the state Vigilance Commission (earlier filled by Ibobi’s henchmen). And till date the only corrupt person to have been caught is a humble peon who is said to have been suspended.
What Biren needs to do is to revive the old mechanism of the Public Grievance Redressal system. For instance, the State Human Rights Commission has been lying defunct for the last seven years as perhaps Ibobi thought what might be good for the people is a nuisance for the government. The Human Rights Commission, whilst I was a member of it, was the poorest in the country in terms of infrastructure and state support but it was by far the most pro-active in India, having aided the National Human Rights Commission to make landmark judgments. This needs to be looked into immediately.
The other key body is the State Information Commission, which Ibobi had managed to keep half paralysed, appointing only the Chief Information Commissioner and not a single member. The Right to Information Act is a key instrument in bringing about transparency in the state’s administration.
Alas, Biren has also not talked about appointing a Lok Pal/ Lok Ayukta to supervise the functioning of his administration inter alia by keeping a tab on corrupt practices.
There have been talks about starting an investigation into the functioning of certain state government undertakings by the CBI. For instance the Manipur Development Society has been singled out but the Loktak Development Authority, which is directly under the Chief Minister and was the other flagship of the BJP’s tirade against the Ibobi Government, has been left out. This will not augur well for him in the long run.
All said and done, Biren appears to be set for a long innings ahead but he needs to show where he means business, and suspending a peon is no solution to the colossal problem of corruption and lack of administration in the state.
(The writer is the Imphal-based special representative of The Statesman)
(Courtesy : The Statesman)