Football is all about teamwork, journalism too. So is politics, unless your mentor turns it into a one-man show.
After becoming chief minister in 2002, Okram Ibobi Singh realised he needed a firefighting team to complete a term, which none of his predecessors could. A year later, he roped Nongthombam Biren into the Congress and made him a junior minister in his coalition government in Manipur.
Little did Singh know 14 years later, his protégé would switch over to rival BJP and replace him as chief minister. N Biren Singh was sworn in on Wednesday as the leader of the saffron party’s first government in Manipur.
This change of fortunes was unimaginable in 2002.
Biren, then 41, had won his first assembly election from the Heingang constituency as a candidate of the regional Democratic Revolutionary People’s Party.
What counted for the Congress was Biren’s track record as a team player in two fields – football and journalism. He was one of Manipur’s first footballers to play outside India, his highpoint as a left-back being a member of the Border Security Force team that won the Durand Cup in 1981.
Later, as editor, he saw Nahorolgi Thoudang – roughly meaning youth’s role – grow from a weekly to a daily, withstanding pressure from the government and several insurgent groups that often reply to critical stories with a grenade hurled at the gate or a shot in the leg.
“The team that I was a part of advised Ibobi Singh out of many a critical situation and helped him create history by completing one term after another. But by the third term, he began listening only to himself, and his style of operation became dictatorial, family-oriented,” Biren told Hindustan Times at his house on the outskirts of Imphal.
By that time, Biren was seen as a leader who could take over from Ibobi Singh someday. But Ibobi Singh kept him out of his ministry after Congress won the third straight election in 2012. A murder case involving Biren’s son in 2011 was believed to be one of the reasons.
A sulking Biren was made the Pradesh Congress vice-president, but there was no sign of a truce with Ibobi Singh.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), eyeing Manipur after forming governments in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, wanted someone who knew how Ibobi Singh operated. It found its man in Biren, more than a decade after Ibobi Singh spotted an ace aide in him.
That the BJP had been trying to woo Biren since 2015 underscores his political worth, as did requests from Congress leaders such as CP Joshi to rethink his decision of quitting the party. Biren changed colours to saffron in October 2016.
Biren’s political career has taken a trajectory similar to Assam’s Himanta Biswa Sarma. Like Biren, Sarma was the go-to man for former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi. Both helped plan the strategy for the Congress to retain power twice in their respective states, both fell out with their chief ministers to join the BJP, and both took other Congress MLAs along.
The BJP relied on Sarma to come to power in Assam last year. The party has now ended the Congress’ 15-year rule in Manipur.