Manipur’s Mandate 2017 is expected to be a tough contest between the ruling Congress and challenger Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The election is also likely to be a test for iconic rights activist Irom Sharmila’s acceptance as a politician.
Soon after ending her 15-year fast on August 9 last year, Sharmila said she would take the electoral plunge for “attaining the power needed to scrap Afspa”. Later, she co-founded People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) party.
Sharmila, 44, is the marquee candidate among five newbies PRJA has fielded. She is contesting the Thoubal seat against Manipur chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh and BJP’s L Bashanta Singh.
Ibobi Singh won the last two elections from Thoubal, his home turf, with record margins.
The Congress does not see Sharmila’s PRJA as much of a challenge. “But all the best to her,” said Pradesh Congress chief TN Haokip.
The BJP too does not spare much though. “Our democracy creates space for everyone, and more players the merrier,” said Nongthombam Biren, one of the BJP’s key candidates who switched over from the Congress last year.
The PRJA is not unrealistic. “We are actually preparing for the 2022 assembly polls, so this election is like testing the waters,” the party’s convenor Erendro Leichombam told HT.
Erendro, 33, is PRJA’s candidate for the Thangmeiband seat. His main rivals are sitting MLA Khumukcham Joykisan Singh and BJP’s W Jyotin Singh.
“Sharmila was widely respected as an activist, but people here generally have a poor opinion about politics and politicians because of their repeated failure in addressing various issues. People don’t really think her joining politics can make any difference,” said Yumnam Rupachandra, editor-in-chief of the local Impact TV, explaining why Sharmila’s popularity might not translate into votes.
“People do come to hear her during campaigning, but elections in Manipur continue to be influenced by muscle and money power. Besides, the my-candidate-versus-your-candidate attitude comes into play because of the closeness of the society,” Rupachandra said.
PRJA leader James Mayengbam, steering Sharmila’s campaign in Thoubal, said she is being driven by idealism – envisaging a corruption-free Manipur not divided on ethnic lines.
“She understands the people, used to her as a silent anti-Afspa activist, will take time to accept her as an interactive politician. But there is no lack of support for her wherever she goes,” he said.
Sharmila, perhaps, knew switching from an activist to a politician will not be easy. “I will go my own way if the people do not support me,” she said some time ago.
The other PRJA candidates are Najima Phundreimayum contesting the Wabgai seat against incumbent MLA Md Fajur Rahim of Congress and U Deben Singh of BJP, Md Illyas Khan for the Lilong seat against sitting MLA Md Abdul Nasir of Congress and Md Anwar Hussain of BJP, and Bowang Kho for the Karong seat against Congress’ DD Thaisii and BJP’s R Yuh Jonathan Tao.
Elections to the 60-member Manipur assembly are scheduled on March 4 and March 8. The last dates of filing nominations for the two phases are February 14 and 16. EOM