On August 10, the BJP-led Manipur government faced a motion of no confidence in the state assembly, moved by the opposition Congress. At the time, the Manipur assembly had 53 members, of a total strength of 60. The BJP had 18 members and the support of 11 other MLAs—four each from the NPP (National People’s Party) and the NPF (National People’s Front), one each from the TMC (Trinamool Congress) and the LJP (Lok Janshakti Party), and one independent, giving it a majority. The Congress had 24 members.
On the day of the vote on the no confidence motion, six Congress members resigned and two abstained from voting, giving the BJP a win. Consequently, byelections were held on November 7 for five of the seats vacated by Congress MLAs (the election commission is yet to give its nod for a bypoll in the sixth seat). Of the five, the BJP won four, while the fifth seat went to former BJP supporter Y. Antash Khan, contesting as an independent candidate. He defeated Abdul Nasir, another independent who was a former Congress MLA and is now being officially backed by the BJP. The saffron party won the Singhat seat unopposed, as the Congress failed to field a candidate there and others withdrew their nominations. With these developments, the Congress tally in the state came down to 18.
However, the final Congress tally in the state is actually 17—another MLA, Rajkumar Imo Singh, the scion of an erstwhile royal family—has been suspended by the party. Imo Singh has been at the centre of this humiliating debacle for the Congress. The 42-year-old two-time MLA is the son of Rajkumar Jaichandra Singh, former chief minister of Manipur, who also served in the Cabinet of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and was known for his proximity to Indira Gandhi. Imo Singh’s grandfather Rajkumar Birchandra Singh was the first president of the Manipur state unit of the Indian National Congress. Despite such a long association with the Congress, Imo Singh was expelled because of anti-party activities. In the Rajya Sabha election, held in June, he had voted in favour of the BJP candidate. His critics claim that he did so because he wanted to save the prestige of his father-in-law, N. Biren Singh, chief minister of Manipur. (Interestingly Biren Singh was also a Congress minister in the cabinet of former chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh. Later, he fell out with Ibobi Singh and joined the BJP, less than a year before the state went to the polls for the assembly election.)
Despite his father-in-law becoming the state’s chief minister, Imo Singh remained a loyal soldier of the Congress. However, he started getting increasingly sidelined by Ibobi Singh within the Congress. Imo sought the intervention of the Gandhi family, but to no avail—he had demanded the removal of Ibobi Singh as leader of the Congress in the state assembly. “There is a disconnect between the younger generation of Congress leaders and the seniors,” says Imo Singh. “The Congress is in serious trouble [in the state] as it is being run like a personal fiefdom. Ibobi Singh behaves as if he is the franchise holder of the party in Manipur and he can take in or kick out anybody at will. His diktats are followed by a few of his close associates, whom he has put in key positions.”
Imo’s support for the BJP candidate in the Rajya Sabha poll was the first sign of an official rebellion against the party. He also persuaded another Congress MLA, Okram Henry, to do the same. (Incidentally, Henry is the nephew of Ibobi Singh.) For these anti-party activities, the Congress suspended Imo Singh, though he had voted against the BJP government in another no confidence motion that took place after the Rajya Sabha polls.
Now it was Imo Singh’s turn to hit back. The six Congressmen who resigned and joined the BJP are his loyalists. The victory of the BJP candidates in the bypoll was, therefore, a matter of prestige and political credibility for him, and he says he feels vindicated with the results. “The comfortable victory margin of BJP candidate P. Brojen Singh in Wangjing Tentha, which is in Thoubal, the home district of Ibobi Singh reflects not only Ibobi Singh’s weakening grip on state politics but also waning of the grand old party’s influence in the state,” he told India Today. “The former CM is singularly responsible for the humiliation the Congress is facing in Manipur.” What also exposes the disarray in the Congress is the fact that it could not even field a candidate in one of the five constituencies—Singhat. In Lilong, where an independent candidate defeated the BJP-supported independent candidate, the Congress was nowhere in the contest, winning three-digit figures.
This episode is another rehash of what the Congress has experienced in multiple states—intense infighting among party members and a failure of the high command to nip such feuds in the bud, leading to costly defections and embarrassing debacles. Imo Singh repeated what Jyotiraditya Scindia, another Gandhi family loyalist, did in Madhya Pradesh, and he is not done yet. He himself remains an independent MLA and claims that he still has some friends in Congress ready to switch. “There is just one year for the term of the current assembly to come to an end. More changes will happen before the elections,” he says.
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