When Okram Ibobi Singh took charge as Manipur’s chief minister in 2002 many thought that his days at the helm were numbered.
The cynicism was understandable. His coalition government had only 20 Congress MLAs in a 60-member House and no CM before him had completed his term due to political instability and long-drawn militancy.
Singh’s detractors said he was lucky to have survived all these years. They attribute the longevity of Singh’s tenure to the actions of Isak-Muivah faction of the extremist National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), which they claimed “created problems for Manipur during polls to help Singh manipulate sentiments and win”.
But many in Manipur were of the opinion that the 69-year-old was the tallest Congress leader in the northeast because he was able to oversee an “unmanageable” state where at least 30 militant groups add to the volatility of ethnic polarisation.
“The people and the responsibility of repaying their trust keep me going,” Singh told HT.
A farmer’s son and the eldest of nine siblings, Singh became a part-time contractor after graduation. His political career started in 1981 when he became the secretary of a cooperative society in Thoubal, 35km from Imphal.
In 1984, Singh won his first assembly election as an Independent and joined the Congress a year later .
After winning the 1990 polls from Khangbok, Singh became the housing and urban development minister.
He lost the 1995 election, but rose within the Congress ranks and become its state president four years later in 1999.
He shepherded the Congress during a tough phase when militancy was at its peak and the NSCN-IM’s push for Greater Nagaland had thrown the state into turmoil.
He became Congress’ pointsman in the state when the party formed a coalition government with CPI and a regional party in 2002.
Singh returned to power in 2007, but the Congress had 30 seats, one short of the majority mark. The coalition with CPI continued even after the Left Front withdrew support from the Congress-led UPA .
Anti-incumbency and increasing trouble for the Congress in Delhi weighed heavily against Singh ahead of the 2012 polls. He, however, proved critics wrong as Congress won 42 seats.
The upcoming elections are expected to be Singh’s toughest contest because of an aggressive BJP. The right-wing party in its pre-poll “fact sheet” cited rights groups to underline Singh’s 15-year reign as the ‘bloodiest’ with some 1,200 extrajudicial killings.
Singh, however, downplayed the allegation.
“Manipur has been more peaceful than before; shops are open till 9pm, which was unthinkable 10-12 years ago. We have been one of the best performing states in many sectors. People know which party cares about them,” he said.