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.
Biren, then 41, had won his first assembly election in 2002 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 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 is now banking on Biren to end the Congress’ 15-year rule in Manipur.
The hopes are higher because Biren and Sarma, partners in managing the Congress’ poll campaigns in 2007 and 2012, are back again as a team to steer the BJP campaign.
“The BJP needed leaders of the stature of Biren, Y Erabot (former Congress minister who joined BJP before Biren) and others to become a potent force,” BJP spokesperson S Ranjan said.
But Congress state president TN Haokip downplayed the threat. “The Congress is too deep-rooted to be uprooted by borrowed individuals,” he said.
It is not about individuals, but about a new team (BJP), said Biren.
“Election is a team game, and our job is to tell the people how Ibobi Singh has used the NSCN (Isak-Muivah faction of National Socialist Council of Nagaland) to impose blockades before polls for creating communal divide, how more than 1,000 fake encounters took place during his time, how he has worked only for his family, and how everything can change if BJP comes to power,” he said.