The Congress' landslide victory of 42 seats in the house of 60 in Manipur was a foregone conclusion although many still think it was a surprise. Most post poll surveys predicted a hung house with the ruling Congress emerging the single largest party. The cynicism in the State being what it is, nobody thought a clear mandate was a possibility. But there is another way of looking at the Congress landslide. It still is an expression of cynicism in the sense that the voters stopped expecting a change for the better but were desperate to have things not slip any further.
The outgoing Congress-headed government, as many noted, inspired only anger and indignation. There would not be one in the State who has not complained in exasperation about the rampant official corruption, or not thrown up his arms in helpless bewilderment at having to do with two hours of electricity a day, or not cursed the government for the water taps that have run dry, or for the crumbling roads everywhere. There would, likewise, be a few who have not shown a clenched fist at the government for the continued imposition of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, for the repeal of which Irom Sharmila has been on an epic hunger strike for nearly 12 years now. Further, abject lack of governance has allowed the law and order to slip away almost completely. The periodic prolonged blockades on the State's lifelines with the government looking the other way even as prices of essential commodities rise to the sky, meant untold misery, uncertainty and insecurity for the common man. Yet, Manipur came out and voted resoundingly to bring back the government it hated.
The explanation is, the Manipur results were not so much about the Congress winning. It was more about non-Congress parties losing. In a hypothetical situation, had the people been given another choice of, say, a spell of President's Rule, the landslide verdict of Manipur voters would probably have gone in favour of the latter.
During the last Congress tenure in power with Chief Minister Okram Ibobi at the helm, almost all other political parties in the State were, either voluntarily or else by compulsion, on a path of self destruction. On most of the issues these parties were deafeningly silent. Many of their legislators hung around and nagged ministers for favours. In the run-up to the election, many of them queued up for Congress tickets. In summary, they reduced themselves to subservient allies of the ruling party. At least one party, the Communist Party of India (CPI) remained a formal partner in the State government, even after the party broke alliance with the Congress at the Centre. The opposition space in the Assembly was thus abdicated. This is the vacuum just right for a shrill and pushy party with a charismatic leader like the Trinamool Congress to enter. The party fielded 47 candidates and won seven, commendable for a newcomer. Had it entered the stage earlier, it probably would have done much better. All other parties, depleted in morale and commitment, ended up unable to set up candidates in even half the Assembly constituencies. Many including the CPI and Manipur People's Party (MPP) drew a blank.
Desperately trying to remain relevant, four of these parties urgently formed a pre-poll alliance, the People's Democratic Front (PDF) but this proved too little too late, despite the alliance attracting seven more parties at a later stage. The PDF partners also probably did not consider the thought that the Anti-Defection Law had lowered the ceiling on cabinet size — 12 including the Chief Minister in the case of Manipur, and therefore a coalition of more than two parties is likely to become strained as the only proven incentive of such coalitions is ministerial berths. The PDF hence did not present a picture of stability capable of instilling confidence to the badly fractured and shaken electorate of Manipur. The ruling Congress on the other hand was strong, resourceful, and because of its strength, able to posture as a non-partisan party, reaching out to the valley as well as the hills, and to all ethnic groups, setting up candidates in all the 60 constituencies, campaigning with the confidence of winners. It won seats from among all communities and regions too.
Those who concluded the Congress was not loved in Manipur in predictions before the results were probably correct. What they did not see was the second factor that this was the only party left seen as capable of providing the sinews to hold the badly divided state together. The party's victory was preordained, not by its virtues but by the absence of a credible adversary. Manipur's choice of the Congress was because it had no other choice.
(Pradip Phanjoubam is a senior journalist based in Manipur. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)