Manipur: Lessons for Congress even in victory


In the hype and hoopla over UP 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 TV 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, 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 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 lack of spectacular achievements and rampant corruption?
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. Also there were no credible alternative political forces to the Congress.
The surprise however was the outcome of the 20 seats in the Hills district. Not since the days of Rishang Keishing perhaps 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—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.
For the Congress, the victory however comes with a warning.
Mamta 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 (MPP).
The Congress is warned. Mamata Banerjee 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 that time.
Even otherwise Ibobi Singh and his team better start delivering results by reducing corruption, generating meaningful employment and bringing a sense of purpose to the lives of hardworking Manipuris if  he wants 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 instead as a dead end of the country’s road network.
Manipur shares a 398-km border with Myanmar. But 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.
So last July, when India’s External Affairs Minister S.M. 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’s 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.
In the seven sister states of India’s North-East, Krishna’s announcement was met with stony silence. Many remembered November 2004, when a similar car rally was organized 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, as it would have brought huge improvement in infrastructure, particularly the roads leading in and out of the state.
Alas, that was not to be.
It is the failure of actualizing intent that rankles in Manipur. That, 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, 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 are 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, otherwise the result may not be the same next time around.