Imphal: A spell of strong showers had made the mud road very slippery. That there was little light at that late hour made it worse.
Patsoi may be eight km from Imphal, but there are barely any paved roads or streetlights – features you would typically identify with any satellite area of a capital city.
Realising the inconvenience, the driver switched on the headlights of the SUV that had just brought us. I joined a group of women carefully negotiating their way into the courtyard of a house. The time, by then, must have been 7:30 PM.
“It is a typical Meitei house; a long veranda in front, don’t miss the Tulsi plant placed in the middle of the courtyard. It is a must, around it our marriages take place,” pointed out a woman, ushering me in.
Is it her house?
“No, a neighbour’s. I am a booth level worker for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), part of the organising committee for this camera meeting,” she said.
Since not a single camera could be seen at the spot, no one could say for sure why it was called a “camera meeting”. Apparently, the term is popular in Manipur. The closest description is a small public meeting.
Inside the house sat a roomful of women on a mud floor in neat rows. They were all residents of Patsoi.
“This constituency has more women than men, so we are trying to reach out to as many women voters as possible,” a BJP worker told this correspondent.
In front of the women stood a table. Few chairs formed an arc around it. Someone hurriedly tied a banner on to the wall facing the women. The banner said, “Bharatiya Janata Party – Patsoi Mandal, Takyelkhongal, booth no: 19/10”.
The meeting began. One by one, a number of local BJP leaders were introduced to the women by a party worker from the locality. They each gave a small speech. As the meeting progressed, a number of men crowded around the doorway, listening intently to each word.
“When did your MLA (Akoijam Mirabai Devi from Congress) visit you last? Why is it that you don’t get drinking water even though you live in the Imphal West district, so close to the capital? Why is there no concrete road here? Why no streetlights for you? No drains? Do you get any BPL (below poverty line) family benefits? When did you last get rice under Antodaya Anna Yojana? Did anyone of you get benefits under the Indira Aawas Yojana? How many of you are still in waiting list? Why don’t you get all these facilities when these schemes are meant for you? How long will you keep quiet?” BJP’s councillor from Patsoi Chungkham Bijoy said, attacking the “corrupt Okram Ibobi Singh government”.
Murmurs in the room began. Many had not got benefits under those schemes even though they are daily wage earners. Some complained that the MLA “has rarely visited the colony after the elections.”
“She will again come to you soon seeking votes. Why do you give your vote to Congress when they approach you during elections with some money? Think about it. My suggestion to you is, take that money but don’t vote for it in the coming elections. Vote for BJP, for Narendra Modi who is changing the way this country works. Across the country people are talking about him. He wants to do a lot for the people of Manipur, for the Northeast. Choose BJP. Join us,” said another speaker vociferously.
Even as the leaders continued to speak, tea and samosas were distributed to all those present. The meeting went on for over an hour. It ended with a party worker requesting “whoever is interested to please sign up as a booth level volunteer for the party”.
Building an electoral base
Though the assembly elections in Manipur are about five months away, the BJP has been electioneering in the state for some months now. At the heart of its canvassing are these small meetings.
“These meetings are as much to canvass for the elections as to build the party’s base among people. We are new in the state, you see,” pointed out a local leader. She said for the last few months, local party leaders and workers have been holding such small booth level meetings, particularly in the valley districts, with the two-pronged agenda of “educating” the voters about the party and picking booth level workers.
“Some meetings are held during the day, some at night to catch those people who go out during the day to work,” she said. These meetings, she said, “have been one of the most important ways of building the party in the state”. She also added, “What has helped us attract more people to the party in such a short span of time in Manipur is also that the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) workers have been working in these areas for some years now.”
No surprise then, that when on September 14, BJP president Amit Shah held a meeting in Imphal, there were reportedly about 30,000 booth level workers attending it. Most of them have joined the party through such colony meetings.
“The crowd surprised us. It was much more than we expected. The national leadership was happy too. These volunteers are our strength, they are the ones who will take the party to the voters,” said a joyous Khumukcham Joykishan, one of the three state election management committee members of BJP. The reason for the high turnout, he claimed with a laugh, “was because more and more people are seeing the BJP like rain after a long period of drought”. He was referring to the 15-year-old Congress rule in the state, often accused by many in the state of “having the blood of our own boys on its hands”. Meaning, hundreds of secret killings carried out by the state police, 1,528 of them declared fake by the Supreme Court recently.
Joykishan left Trinamool Congress, a Congress ally, to join BJP just before the June 2015 by-elections. He won the Thangmeiband assembly seat for the party. Yet another former TMC member, Thongam Biswajit Singh, won the Thongjui seat for the BJP. Much to the joy of the national leadership, they helped the party debut in the Manipur assembly. In the 60-member house, BJP now has two members while the ruling Congress has 48 members.
According to some party insiders, Joykishan “is now tipped to be the party’s chief ministerial face”. Joykishan, expectedly, evaded the question when asked.
“It is up to the central leadership. The party will certainly announce a CM candidate before the elections, it is our style. We should be able to announce the name by end October or early November,” he told this correspondent from Mumbai, while on his way to attend the party’s national executive that began in Kerala this Friday.
Though from September 14 to 15, Shah, along with union HRD minister Prakash Javdekar (he is also the national leader in-charge of Manipur), national general secretary Ram Madhav and North East Democratic Alliance convener Himanta Biswa Sarma toured the state to “finalise” its poll strategy, the state leaders are tightlipped about it.
The stakes are obviously high. After the party’s rousing win in Assam early this year, it has now set its eyes on making Manipur “Congress mukt”. Shah has predicted the party’s win quite a few times already.
Positive signs for the party
The signs, so far, have been good for the party too. After making inroads in the by-elections, BJP won 62 of the 278 municipal councils in January this year, another first. (Congress got 108 seats.)
The state BJP got yet another favourable message this past June. In the Imphal municipal corporation elections, BJP – again for the first time – grabbed ten seats (it won just one seat last time) while 12 went to Congress (14 earlier) and five to independent candidates.
The party is hoping the anti-incumbency faced by the three-term-old Congress government will bring it the required numbers to form the next government in the state.
“Anti-incumbency is a factor that may help BJP, but Congress is still strong in some pockets. While Congress is well entrenched in Manipur, BJP is still building its base in the state, mostly by borrowing leaders from other parties. So it is to be seen in coming times whether voters ignore that fact and go only for the party. Also, in Manipur, winning an election has a lot to do with money power,” says a prominent Meitei women leader, who preferred to be anonymous here.
“Money power” did pop up as a seeming poll determinant across the state. If political leaders openly asked voters in public meetings about “how much did you take to vote last time”, voters too are frank about quoting the sum. A voter in Bishnupur district even claimed to The Wire that he regretted selling his vote for Rs 500 in the last polls as his “neighbour did it for double that money a day later”.
“What we are offering to the people is good governance against a corrupt government,” said Joykishan.
However, the BJP is also getting increasingly aware of the need to engage in some other “burning issues”. In the last few months, overtly or covertly, it has been addressing some issues. Take for instance, the street protests demanding the government introduce the Inner Line Permit (ILP), as wanted by people living in the valley districts, and a tacit support to the demand of the hill people for more autonomy.
“Though BJP was initially backing the hill district leaders’ demands for more autonomy, thinking it will help topple the Ibobi government, it couldn’t do so. Now, with the election nearing, it has begun playing a balancing act. It has realised that it is beneficial to back the ILP movement as the valley districts have 40 of the 60 seats. To form the government, a party needs only 31 seats,” said a state Congress source. He said, “BJP also knows that it can’t get all the valley seats, so it is trying to keep the hill people happy as well by supporting their agitation against the three bills passed by the state government.”
According to a local journalist who has been following the state’s politics for a long period, “Congress too is playing the same balancing game, by first bringing in three bills that supported the concerns of the majority Meitei community about losing land to ‘outsiders’. It then brought in yet another bill, again to address the same concerns of the Meiteis. And now, it is supporting the Kukis against the Naga-led tribes in the hill districts, knowing well that the others are with BJP. This will further divide the votes in the 20 constituencies of the hill districts.”
With the battle lines drawn rather sharply between two arch rivals, it is a tough call for the state’s voters. However, it seemed easy for politicians to choose sides, a least some young ones. Many budding politicians who have joined the BJP seemed to be driven by the belief that BJP under Modi “encourages young leaders”.
“I was working in Ahmedabad for some years and became a BJP member there. I saw how Modiji brought development to Gujarat. Since I was also side by side working for the community in Patsoi since 2002, I increasingly began to think, why can’t we bring such development to Manipur too? So I moved to Imphal in 2012,” Bijoy, in his early 40s, told The Wire.
A first time councilor for the party, Bijoy, also an RSS member, is one of the many young ticket seekers for the coming elections. “I know Modiji gives opportunity to young people to work for the people,” he said.
Conversations with more such leaders highlighted their belief that “there is also a Modi wave in the state”. Joykishan was quick to agree, “Yes, there is a Modi wave in Manipur. You will see it in election results.”
“Also,” he added, “that a senior Congress leader and former minister like Yumkham Erabot decided to join BJP indicates that something is highly wrong in that party and Ibobi Singh’s leadership.”
“In coming times,” he added, “more Congress leaders will want to join BJP.”
Though Joykishan said, “We will not accept every other Congress member approaching us to join BJP as this will send a wrong message to the people,” the pattern of BJP’s strategy in Manipur seemed similar to that of Assam in the run-up to the polls early this year.
A few parallels can already be drawn in this context. Such as, offering “good governance” against the “corrupt Congress government” and getting some Congressmen to join the party.
Also, like Tarun Gogoi’s arch rival Himanta Biswa Sarma was brought to the BJP, Yumkham Erabot’s induction in Manipur is being seen as a strategic ploy considering he is a bitter rival of Ibobi Singh.
What finally delivered Assam to the BJP was the “outsider” card it played towards the end of its campaign. In Manipur too, the “outsider” card could have been a potential poll weapon for the party but the Congress got there first. All it is left with now is the other card, alleged corruption by the ruling dispenation.
Not for nothing did Amit Shah say in the booth level wokers’ meeting in Imphal, “Rs 5,000 crore work completion certificate was not given to the people in Manipur by CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General). Congress must explain where these funds have gone.”