The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in Manipur has always been beset by rumbles of dissent from within. Yet the rainbow alliance has survived for more than three years now, keeping the BJP in power in the North Eastern state even though it had not won anywhere near a majority in the Assembly elections of 2017.
But even as the state faces a surge of Covid-19 cases, the BJP must contend with another wave of rebellion. On June 18, the Congress moved a no-confidence motion against the government. This after an alliance partner withdrew from the government and BJP legislators abandoned ship. This may be the most serious challenge to the state government so far.
A string of resignations
It began on the afternoon of June 17, when four state ministers, all belonging to the BJP’s alliance partner, National People’s Party, quit the cabinet. Among the four was Langpoklakpam Jayantakumar Singh, the state’s health minister. Subsequently, the National People’s Party withdrew support to the government.
Relationship between the two parties, always strained, reached breaking point in April, when National People’s Party leader Yumnam Joykumar Singh openly admonished Chief Minister N Biren Singh for his handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Singhresponded by stripping Joykumar Singh of all his portfolios.
Almost simultaneously on June 17, three of the BJP’s own legislators
also tendered their resignations and joined the Congress. To make matters worse for the BJP, two other legislators – one independent and the other from the Trinamool Congress – also withdrew support to the coalition government. Both have pledged their support to the Congress.
These developments, all in a matter of hours, meant that the arithmetic in the Manipur Assembly had changed dramatically, on the eve of elections to the state’s lone Rajya Sabha seat, scheduled on June 19.
However, the arithmetic is complicated by defections, suspensions and resignations.
In the last Assembly elections in 2017, Congress emerged as the single largest party, winning 28 of the 60 seats. The BJP finished second with 21 seats.
Yet it was the BJP which formed the government, after an eventful couple of days rife with defections, rumoured abductions and mysterious letters of support from the National People’s Party, which also seemed to have thrown in its lot with the Congress. Finally, the BJP cobbled together a post-poll alliance with the Naga People’s Front and the National People’s Party, both with four seats each, and the Lok Janashakti Party, which had one seat.
With 30 seats, the coalition was still one short of the magic figure of 31. A Congress legislator, Thounaojam Shyamkumar Singh came to the rescue, defecting to the BJP. Soon, seven more Congress legislators followed suit.
After the Congress filed a slew of petitions challenging these defections as unconstitutional and in violation of India’s defection laws, the Supreme Court suspended Shyamkumar Singh in March 2020, thus bringing down the effective strength of the house to 59.
Earlier this month, the Manipur High Court passed another order restraining the seven Congress defectors from attending proceedings in the Assembly.
Proceedings regarding their suspension are currently pending with the Speaker. On June 17, soon after the churning, the Speaker moved the proceedings, originally scheduled for June 22, to June 18. The Congress members have protested against the Speaker’s decision and have asked for his removal.
In a late evening order, the Manipur High Court directed the Speaker to keep his decision “in abeyance” till June 19.
Whatever the seven legislators’ fate, the Congress claims it has the numbers. With the three renegade BJP legislators having given up on their seats, the effective strength of the house would be at 56 if the Speaker were to decide in favour of the seven Congress defectors. “Of the seven, four are with us, three are in their camp,” said Khumukcham Joykishan, Congress legislator from the Thangmeiband constituency.
In that case, the Congress would have the support of 30 legislators, more than the half-way mark in a 56-seater Assembly. “We have a clear majority,” said Joykishan.
If the seven MLAs are suspended, the strength of the house would be further reduced to 49. In that case, the Congress would have 26 legislators on their side, one more than the majority mark. “If the BJP believes in the Constitution, we will form the government,” said Joykishan.
On Thursday, the Congress wrote to the governor to convene a special session of the Assembly “at the shortest possible time… to protect democracy in the state.”
A steadfast BJP
The BJP, for their part, put up a brave front in public. “So far as my calculation is concerned, we will retain our government,” said Saikhom Tikendra Singh, the party’s state president. “There is nothing to worry about.”
Tikendra Singh insisted that the ruling coalition had “enough numbers”. “But I don’t want to go into the arithmetic at the moment,” he said.
But the party’s alliance partners appear to be less confident. A Naga People’s Front legislator said a more likely eventuality was the imposition of president’s rule. “But then everything is possible in politics and BJP is in power at the Centre,” said the legislator, speaking off the record from a hotel in Imphal where the BJP has parked all the legislators in its camp.
Will a reconciliation with the National People’s Party save the day for the saffron party? After all, the party led by Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma is part of the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre. Unlikely, said Joykumar Singh. “The high command has been communicated and they agree that a dire step was necessary,” he said.
While the immediate trigger for the churning appeared to be the upcoming Rajya Sabha polls, the state’s political observers said dissent had been brewing for a while. The BJP had given out too many portfolios to alliance partners to keep them happy, leaving its own legislators disillusioned, said Imphal-based journalist and author, Pradip Phanjoubam. “A lot of them were first-time MLAs, so they were happy to be just that initially, but they started to realise that it was not enough,” he said. “So, there was discontentment building up.”
Besides, Biren Singh’s supposed iron-fisted style of functioning did not help, said Phanjoubam. “He is not tolerant of criticism – he has put multiple people in jail for criticising him,” he said. “So, it is very likely that that approach extended to how he dealt with people within the government too.”
Joykumar Singh seemed to allude to something similar too. “The BJP could form the government only because of us,” he said. “But instead of feeling obliged to us, Biren Singh tried to dominate us.”