Assembly elections

N Biren Singh: From the football field to Manipur chief minister

The state's new government could look rather like the old one.

The chips have fallen in Manipur. Nongthombam Biren Singh, 56, will be sworn in as the state’s first chief minister from the Bharatiya Janata Party on Wednesday. The footballer-turned-journalist-turned-politician is an old familiar in Manipur’s political scene.

He is a recent recruit to the BJP, having joined the party only in October. He won from Heingang constituency in Imphal East district. But then Biren Singh has held the seat on different party tickets since he joined politics in 2002.

The BJP did not declare a chief ministerial candidate for these elections but Biren Singh’s name had come up as a potential frontrunner – a Meitei with his political base in the heart of the valley, and a record with the previous Congress government. Journalists describe the former editor of a widely-read Manipuri daily as accessible and media-savvy, more so than Okram Ibobi Singh, the regional satrap of the Congress who has ruled Manipur for 15 years.

But will a change in chief minister mean an actual change in governance in the state?

From footballer to politician

In the early 1990s, Biren Singh was a footballer, playing for the Border Security Force’s Jalandhar team. According to this report, he spent five years playing in Delhi and Jalandhar, in Punjab. He named one of his children Zico, after the Brazilian footballer. When he returned to Manipur, he sold a piece of land owned by his father and started a newspaper where he wrote the editorials.

Naharolgi Thoudang, a Manipuri newspaper published in the Bengali script, started life in May 1996. Described as one of the most read Manipur dailies, the publication has a motto on its masthead: “A Newspaper Dedicated to the Cause of Human Rights”.

Biren Singh claims it was also concern for human rights that propelled him into politics in the late 1990s, when the state was riven by insurgencies, extrajudicial killings and disappearances. He has said that he started his political career campaigning against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, an electoral pitch wielded with little success by human rights activist Irom Sharmila in the recently-concluded polls.

Biren Singh was part of a small group that founded the Democratic Revolutionary People’s Party. It was a short-lived political formation, launched just before the Assembly elections of 2002, where it fielded 23 candidates. That was when Singh won Heingang for the first time.

By the elections of 2007, the party had merged with the Congress and Singh went on to become a close associate of Okram Ibobi Singh. From 2002 to 2012, he held cabinet posts in the Congress government. Journalists based in Imphal believe that Okram Ibobi Singh and his aide fell out after the Assembly election of 2012, when Biren Singh was left out of the council of ministers.

Last year, tensions between the two rose to the surface when Biren Singh threatened to leave the Congress and defect to the BJP along with 20 other legislators unless there was a cabinet reshuffle. The reshuffle duly took place and Singh was made vice-president of the Congress in the state. He left in October anyway, and joined the BJP, apparently in protest against “misgovernance”.

Another Himanta Biswa Sarma?

Biren Singh’s rapid ascent within the saffron party has now invited comparisons with Himanta Biswa Sarma, the wheeler-dealer in the previous Congress government in Assam who defected to the BJP shortly before the Assembly elections last year.

Both leaders were close to their respective chief ministers who headed Congress governments over roughly the same period of time – Tarun Gogoi came to power in Assam in 2001 and only lost to the BJP last year, while Ibobi Singh has been chief minister of Manipur from 2002 till 2017.

Both Biren Singh and Sharma seem to have made an exit from the Congress after their political ambitions were frustrated by the party’s regional dynasties. The trouble between Sarma and Gogoi is said to have started after Chief Minister Gogoi launched his son, Gaurav Gogoi, into politics. Similarly, Biren Singh has complained about Ibobi Singh fielding his wife and son as candidates in the Assembly elections.

Both Biren Singh and Sarma are not unattended by controversy. Sarma was summoned by the Central Bureau of Investigation after the multi-crore Saradha scam emerged, though he claimed it was only as a witness. The former student leader who rose to prominence during the Assam movement in the 1980s has also been charged with other crimes. Not long ago, an arrested member of the United Liberation Front of Asom claimed that Sarma used the militant outfit to take out a rival.

In 2011, Biren Singh’s son was charged with shooting a man in an alleged case of road rage during the Yaoshang festival in Manipur. The case was handed to the Central Bureau of Investigation after a public agitation by civil society groups and rival parties. Indeed, in 2011, it was the BJP that asked for Biren Singh’s resignation from the cabinet over the matter.

In Assam, Sarma has now established himself as the BJP’s point man in the North East, building coalitions with other regional parties, and strategising for the party. During the deadlock that followed the Manipur elections, it was Sarma, flanked by the party’s national leadership, who attended important press conferences held by the BJP.

The jury is out on whether Biren Singh matches Sarma’s political acumen. But with Biren Singh, the BJP has imported yet another prominent face of the Congress regime it succeeded, this time in Manipur and as chief minister. The new government could look rather like the old one.

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