Elections in India have become a five yearly extravaganza. It is about short-term commitments from politicians who ride populist bandwagons. Everyday, TV space is captured by UP and Punjab. The latest controversy is about the Congress candidate from Punjab who is wooing voters with liquor after having prepaid the wine store owners.
Manipur is the only state of the northeastern region that went to the polls on Saturday. There the militant outfits of all shades bared their teeth and bomb blasts shattered the otherwise staid progress of the campaign.
We are a country whose media fixates on large states and larger-than-life political bigwigs (with huge paper cut-outs and statues of themselves set up all over the place). Since elections are all about numbers, UP and Punjab would make much more news than Manipur with a 60-member Assembly. What the present chief minister of Manipur, Ibobi Singh says or does not say would probably make little news. What's interesting is that the Congress party in Manipur has this time promised to revoke the contentious Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) and also to appoint a Lokayukta. These are popular demands which evoke strong emotions; hence the prompt response. Recently Gen. V.K. Singh, said the removal of AFSPA is unwarranted as re-imposing it, in case the situation warrants, would be well nigh impossible. Gen. Singh pointed to parts of Manipur like the Imphal valley where the AFSPA was removed and said that today those areas are the most unruly and killings take place on a daily basis.
A very cogent argument indeed from a man, who when he was asked why the army was not involved in tackling the Maoists, said: "The army cannot be used to fight their own people."
This statement rankles because it reinforces the average Indian mindset that while central, southern, northern, eastern and western India are inhabited by "our own people," the northeastern region is populated by "not our own people;" in other words by aliens who need to be brought on track because of their tendency to revolt and revile the India they do not understand.
And for this noble task of "mainstreaming" a belligerent population that not only looks different but also talks and walks differently; tends to focus its gaze eastwards and is more attuned to television channels like Arirang (a Korean channel) and identifies with that way of life rather than what they see from their western window, the army has been called in to replace the civilising mission of the missionaries but this time with guns.
Many are unable to understand the double standards adopted by the Centre when it comes to the imposition of AFSPA. And though we might say that the saving grace about Indian democracy is that the army has remained a fighting force not pining for a political space, the fact remains that the defence ministry still wields considerable power in deciding whether or not AFSPA should be removed. Retired army chiefs wax eloquent on TV channels and other platforms that AFSPA is as necessary as oxygen is for the people of the Northeast and Kashmir because the army knows better what they are up against while the civilian population is all at sea about their own welfare. What arguments can you proffer against such patronising logic? Even Irom Sharmila's 10-year-long fast has failed to move the mainstream Indian heart.
The pre-poll promise of removing the AFSPA from Manipur sounds hollow and clich�d. Now, about the appointment of a Lokayukta even if he/she is appointed to bring in greater accountability in a state known for epidemic of malfeasance, the pertinent point is the character of the person who will be appointed. Will he/she be as pro-active, ethical and principled as Karnataka Lokayukta Justice Santosh Hegde? Will the Manipur Lokayukta plug the regular and well-oiled machinery through which public funds incessantly leak into private coffers and those of gun-toting rebels? And mind you the AFSPA has not deterred extortion by militants a wee bit. They continue unhindered with or without that "noxious instrument of oppression."
But let's come to the more salient points about elections. Large swathes of Manipur, particularly in the hills, remains undeveloped. Civic governance in the capital city of Imphal seems to have completely collapsed. Most people survive by their wits despite the government. The 139 days of economic blockades that hit Manipur last year are a black mark on the Ibobi Singh government. Either he was unable to handle the situation or did not consider it important enough to do so. The 55,000 odd security personnel who have actually converged into the civilian space were not ordered to tackle the bandh callers because the two warring groups who called the blockade at two different points of time for two different reasons were both tribals. The ethnic divide in Manipur as in the rest of the Northeast has reached a point where even discussing it invites cynicism or a sense of futility.
These petty issues have often overshadowed the larger issue of governance and the need for an effective delivery mechanism. There is very little that Ibobi Singh can claim by way of development. All that he has done in five years is fire-fighting apart from playing the Meitei card vis-�-vis the Naga nationalism drama that plays itself out in the form of economic blockades every year, year after year with little results. Those who pay the heaviest price are ordinary people who have nothing to do with ethnic politics and its contumacious underpinnings. Only a few benefit from the regular upsurge of Naga nationalism versus Meitei pride. The few leaders who emerge during such moments eventually become dyed-in-the-wool politicians who later take refuge in rhetoric and deliver nothing to the people.
Observers of the Manipur election scene believe that Ibobi Singh will return as Manipur's chief minister for yet another term, simply because the alternatives are not viable. There is no leader of substance that Manipur has produced in the last five years. Despite all the allegations of corruption and non-delivery, Ibobi Singh comes out unscathed because his appeal is on ethnic pride and not on governance. To the Meiteis, Ibobi Singh is seen as a champion who will defend the integrity of Manipur at all costs. His standing up to Th. Muivah last year and his refusal to toe P. Chidambaram's line in allowing the NSCN (I-M) patriarch from entering Manipur to visit his village is perhaps a singular achievement which though not declared from the rooftops of the valley, remain an unforgotten landmark.
Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress and the NCP might get a few seats but the fight really is between the Congress and the regional parties. Some things are predictable and Ibobi's return is imminent. In a sense, people would be able to hold the Congress to its claim of revoking the AFSPA. One wonders what happens to Irom Sharmila if the AFSPA is indeed revoked.
(The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)