Cycling is a new passion for Irom Sharmila. After spending most of the past 16 years on a hospital bed in Imphal being force fed through a pipe, the bicycle has given the human rights icon a taste of freedom.
It also gives the 44-year-old a chance to get close to residents of Imphal Valley and drum up support for her party, Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA), which she launched in October, to contest the upcoming assembly polls.
Every day she ventures out unaccompanied from her residence at New Checkon locality in Imphal East district, and cycles as far as her legs or her Hercules Captain Shakti bicycle take her.
On Thursday, Manipur’s Iron Lady -- who this August ended her fast against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in Manipur -- cycled to Baruni Hill, 20 km from Imphal.
“If I want to be the next chief minister of Manipur, I need to know the place and people well. Besides keeping fit, cycling gives me an opportunity to do that,” she said.
Sharmila stops at different localities spread to meet people from various communities and talk about her vision of Manipur.
“Irrespective of their differences, whomever I meet say they want to help me,” she said.
Sharmila is planning to contest against chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh, a Congress veteran who has been in power since 2002. It’s a tough battle but she is confident.
She blames Ibobi’s government for creating seven new districts -- a move that intensified an ongoing economic blockade -- without consulting all groups, and for extending AFSPA by another year.
“The youth want change and want to be part of that transformation. I am confident not just about my win but of my party,” she said, stressing that only a regional outfit like hers could bring change in the state.
But PRJA hasn’t found much resonance among voters in a state where the ruling Congress and BJP are major players. There is an urgent need for funds and volunteers.
There is a plan to launch a campaign called ‘Ten for Change’, seeking ten rupees each from the public and also reach out to voters more aggressively.
Assembly polls are likely in February, but PRJA hasn’t decided yet whether it wants to go alone or have an alliance.
Sharmila met Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi earlier this year, which led to speculations that there could be some tie up with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
“I doubt whether her party will be able to make any impact in the coming elections. Sharmila is an idealist, but the party needs to do a lot more to attract voters,” said Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of Imphal Free Press.
Some experts feel PRJA doesn’t have the organisational structure, mass support and money needed to take on the Congress and BJP.
“Voters are guided by the politics of power. I don’t think starting a political party was a right step,” said Prof. Bimala Khetri, political commentator and former dean of School of Social Sciences.
Many friends who stood by her through her long hunger strike have deserted her due to differences over her political innings and Sharmila doesn’t enjoy much family support.
“I am not in touch with her. Instead of contesting assembly elections, I had advised her to contest the next Lok Sabha polls with better preparation, but she ignored my request,” said her brother Irom Singhajit.
Sharmila’s party has selected six candidates out of the 60 assembly seats. There is a fear if PRJA fares poorly in the polls, the party might disintegrate.
Amid the bustle, she is still in touch with Desmond Coutinho, a British citizen of Goan descent, whom she wants to marry – a choice that sharply divided opinion in Manipur.
“I don’t have any regrets. I carried the expectation of Manipuri people for 16 years, now they and my family need to respect my right to make my own choices,” she said.