Manipur: A victory with a warning!
Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, never before a force to reckon with in Manipur, has won seven seats in the recent assembly elections, overtaking established political forces like the Manipur People's Party.
However, if Chief Minister Ibobi Singh, re-elected for an unprecedented third consecutive term, is not successful in tackling the woes of the hard-working Manipuris, the state may abandon the Congress, says Nitin Gokhale.
In the hype and hoopla over the Uttar Pradesh election results, the electoral outcome in Manipur, that tiny, beautiful state in the north-east, remained at best a footnote to the grandly-mounted but often vacuous television studio discussions.
But if, in the gloom and doom of losing UP, Punjab and Goa, the Congress had one piece of good news, it was from Manipur.
For the first time in over a quarter century or more, a single party -- the Congress in this case -- has won an absolute majority in the 60-member state assembly.
Okram Ibobi Singh, a man with no apparent charisma, has delivered the state to the Congress for third time in a row -- a la Tarun Gogoi in neighbouring Assam.
In fact, if you cast your eye across the map of India, except for Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala (where it rules by the skin of its teeth), the Congress has more governments in the north-east -- Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Meghalaya.
So what accounts for Ibobi Singh's uninterrupted stint in Manipur despite the lack of spectacular achievements and rampant corruption?
Nitin Gokhale is the Defence Editor, NDTV.
Image: A paramilitary soldier stands guard beside a busy street in Manipur
Photographs: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters
The Manipuri voter's silent revenge
For starters, the chief minister has managed to polarise the Meitei votes in the party's favour by letting the road blockades by pro-Naga and pro-Kuki organisations fester. So the Meitei-majority Imphal Valley voted solidly in support of the Congress, giving it 28 of the 40 seats.
Secondly, there was no credible opposition group that could provide an alternative to the stability offered by the Congress. Voters in the north-east also often tend to go with the party that has the support from the Centre. In this case, it was clear that Ibobi would have a clear advantage given his cosy relationship with the central leadership
The surprise, however, was the outcome from the 20 seats in the Hills district. Perhaps not since the days of Rishang Keishing has the Congress won so many seats (14). It also shows that all the pro-Naga unification forces may have overestimated their own strength.
A common citizen -- it doesn't matter if he is a Naga or a Meitei -- dislikes inconvenience forced on him as it happened during a spate of road blockades in Naga-dominated areas over the past three years. This is the silent revenge of the average voter against the coercive methods of pro-Greater Nagaland outfits who fared poorly in the elections.
Image: Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh
Photographs: Rediff Archives
Ibobi Singh needs to deliver!
For the Congress, the victory comes with a warning however.
Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, never before a force to reckon with in Manipur, has won seven seats, overtaking even established political forces like the Manipur People's Party.
West Bengal's giant-killer is now eyeing the north-eastern states. Last year, her party had contested all the 126 assembly seats in Assam, although one must also point out that the Trinamool Congress fared poorly there.
Even otherwise, Ibobi Singh and his team better start delivering results by reducing corruption and generating meaningful employment. They need to bring a sense of purpose to the lives of the hardworking Manipuris if they want to reap the benefit of India's renewed interest in implementing the Look-East Policy, especially in view of the spectacular changes in Myanmar.
That will happen only if they start looking at Manipur as an important starting point in India's Look East policy.
Image: A Manipuri student participates in a protest
Manipur's inherent advantage
The state has an inherent advantage. It shares a 398-km border with Myanmar.
More importantly, the Manipuri border town of Moreh has been a traditional trading hub with Myanmar and therefore has vast potential to become a major export centre from India for the South-East Asian region.
Last July, when India's External Affairs Minister SM Krishna, speaking at the Indonesian resort town of Bali, said of India and South East Asia, "We need connectivity more than ever before between our younger generations -- entrepreneurs, IT experts, scientists, diplomats, media and students," he was only highlighting a long-desired need.
Krishna also announced that a car rally will be held in 2012 to commemorate India-ASEAN trade ties. "I propose that, unlike the car rally in 2004, this time the car rally begin from ASEAN countries into India and culminate at Kolkata," Krishna said, underlining the need for deepening geographical connectivity among countries of the region.
Image: Children displaced from their homes by the conflict, at a settlement in Moreh, Chandel district, Manipur
Photographs: Sumit Bhattacharya
The beginning of a new era?
In the seven sister states in North-East India, Krishna's announcement was met with stony silence.
Many remembered November 2004, when a similar car rally was organised between Guwahati and Singapore, passing through the Indian states of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. Then too, the rally was seen as the beginning of a new era in connecting India's isolated north-eastern region to East and South-East Asia.
Manipur, in particular, hoped the new initiative would help it overcome its inherent handicap of being a remote and landlocked state. It hoped there would be huge improvement in infrastructure, particularly in the roads leading in and out of the state.
Alas, that was not to be.
Image: The traditional Manipuri dance, Maha-Raas, celebrates the divine love between Lord Krishna and Radha
Photographs: Courtesy: Manipur Toursim
A failure that rankles!
It is the failure of actualising intent that rankles in Manipur. Combined with multiple frustrations emanating from prolonged bouts of economic blockades, a state administration in terminal atrophy and the continued and unchallenged writ of underground armed groups, this has left the people despondent.
It is this hopelessness that the Centre and state government must work hard to overcome. For that, a solution to long-standing ethnic insurgencies has to be found in double-quick time.
Now is the time to press for peace and security in Manipur -- politics in Myanmar is undergoing a dramatic change.
With the junta taking tentative steps towards genuine democracy and showing signs of warming towards India, New Delhi must seize this moment to establish lasting trade and cultural ties with its eastern neighbour.
But before India can play a larger role in Maynmar, it needs to fix Manipur's broken socio-political landscape.
Image: Padma Shri Astad Deboo, a noted Indian contemporary dancer, performs with the Pung Cholom dancers of Manipur
Photographs: Courtesy: Astad Deboo