Omnipresent, resilient and resolute, the women of Manipur voted in large numbers for a much needed change
Before I had gone to stay over in Manipur for the elections in November last year, I decided to do a general survey and research on the place, its politics, people, culture, cuisine etc. I was struck at the image the media built for me. All articles carried on Manipur by the national media hovered around violence, upheaval and/or clash. The impression with which I landed at the Imphal airport was that of a bloodied land – torn and shattered with political and administrative failures.
A Beautiful, Scarred Land
Notwithstanding the problems that unfolded themselves in Manipur, the State won me over with time. The beautiful sunrise and sunset overlooking the Kangla fort, the green, lush fields in the valley, the challenging hills which invited onlookers over with their omnipresence, the uniqueness of cultures, the overwhelming and natural presence of women in all spheres of life (sans politics) and the untouched, unexplored aura around everything that Manipur stands out for, including the Loktak Lake, have created an image which no profiling and reportage in the national narrative and media about Manipur did by far.
However, the expanse and limitations of my work soaked me in the political contours of Manipur. By the end of February-beginning of March, it was clear to me that Manipur would change this time. Months of secondary research and feedback from the ground had shown the clear writing on the wall. 15 years of anti-incumbency against the Congress government led by Ibobi Singh, marred by corruption, punctuated by inequitable distribution of wealth, absolute disarray in law and order and the gross human rights violations had collectively contributed to an anti-Congress sentiment in the State.
15 Years of Misrule
The Congress tried hard to polarize and communalize the communication in Manipur on the hills and valley question and/or the Naga-Metei-Kuki tussle. So much so, that any attempt to challenge their narrative even by advertorial communication by the BJP, was met with back channel threatening calls to editors to not carry the advertisement or to wash down the impact of political aggression in the advertisement, as if a paid for space in a newspaper were reserved for an essay in an academic journal.
The real tussle unfolded around the narrative. While Ibobi wanted the elections to be a ‘referendum’ on the hills-valley unity of Manipur, as he furiously announced in an interview, BJP wanted the elections to be a reflection on the report card of the 15 years of Congress rule in the state – 10 years marked by the unanimous acceptance of the Congress party at state and national levels. This tussle took us back to the experiences gathered over the last year Assembly Elections in Assam.
Why is the narrative of electoral battles in the Northeast always so polarized on ethnic lines? Is the question of identity only an Oedipal/psychoanalytical question or this region vis-a-vis the larger national narrative or is it more political and reflexive of a history tightly controlled by the dominant Congress establishment in these areas of the country? Has the Northeast been genuinely neglected out of ignorance and laxity on part of the Congress leaders or has it been kept under darkness by design? These are questions that surround us each time we discover a State in the Northeastern part of India under the feverish spell of electoral intensity.
Hence, in order to politically tackle such a fraught situation in the Northeast, a coalition of political parties and leaders representing a common ambition and goal was initiated by the BJP in 2016. This coalition, in the past few electoral cycles, have smoothened the road for a cohesive and united narrative for the Northeast and delivered electoral outcomes above lines identified across carefully calibrated Congress-eddivisions. It has helped in bringing the core issues of development, corruption, misappropriation of voices and mismanagement of resources to the center stage of a political debate, erstwhile lost in the pocketed echoes of sectarianism.
The Resilience of Manipur’s Women
In an informed, aware and equitable society, narratives alone decide the swing of support in favor of or against a political stream of thought. But in a society divided vertically, horizontally and cross-sectionally across various identifiable lines, constituencies of narrow identity and ethnic questions control democratic procedures, processes and products. For example, in Manipur the valley and the hills have been polarized and issues extradited from each other to such an extent that the promise of good roads and jobs also came with a partisan label and price tag, favoring valley above the hills. These considerations hadcarefully crafted vote pockets, divorced from each other,for the benefit of the Congress party.A stitched up poll arithmetic was always made available as a political pastiche and a pattern was set up for every electoral grab.
While we were trying to understand and make sense of this entire conundrum of political circumstances, we were meeting the women of Manipur. Omnipresent, resilient and resolute, they managed the shops, the houses – the inside and the outside – interestingly nearly absent from the world of party-politics. But, they voted and voted in record numbers. In fact, they informed the crux of what could be called the mainstreaming of Manipur, something that will require a relaxed reconstruction of a whole repertoire of images – later, may be.
The writer is Assistant Editor, the India Foundation Journal and Political Consultant, Office of Sh Ram Madhav, Gen Secy – BJP