The Meaning of Ninety Votes in Manipur
By Laxmi Murthy
A day after the declaration of the results of the Assembly elections in which she garnered only 90 votes to sitting Chief Minister Ibobi Singh’s 18,649, poet and activist Irom Sharmila announced her decision to conclude her brief sortie into electoral politics. Soon after ending her 16-year long fast to repeal the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act on August 9, 2016, Sharmila, popularly called the ‘Iron Lady’, had announced, “I am the embodiment of revolution. I want to become the Chief Minister so I can change society here.” In October 2016, against the backdrop of disapproval from local civil society groups about giving up her fast and shedding her iconic status to enter ‘dirty politics’, she launched a new party, the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) to bring about “non-violence, peace and understanding” to Manipur, a state wracked by decades of conflict.
Campaigning house to house, like Sharmila, with no large rallies or road-shows, PRJA’s Najima Bibi, Manipur’s first-ever Muslim woman candidate, promised improvements in education, women’s welfare and small-scale employment, communicating a broad message of development and welfare. She incurred the wrath of clerics who issued a fatwa against her, denying her space in the community burial ground in her village in Thoubal district. Lodging a formal complaint, she kept going, undeterred, as controversy and opposition from conservative elements was not new to Najima Bibi, having faced opposition when she started up a cheng marup (rice fund) co-operative for women, or even when she first began to move around on a bicycle.
Manipur with 86% voter turnout, witnessed one of the highest turnouts in its electoral history, and significantly, the female voter turnout was as high as 89%. However, only 11 women candidates contested among the 266 candidates across Manipur’s 60 Assembly constituencies, and as many as 49 constituencies did not field a single woman candidate.
The Manipuri electorate evidently has enough faith in the political system to come out in large numbers and cast their votes, this time without having to brave calls for boycott of the polls by militant groups –a regular feature in the past.
Yet, despite the desire to end corruption and bring about stability and development, or Sharmila’s promise of doing away with the AFSPA she had less than a hundred takers, with about 140 voters choosing ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA).
Even discounting her inexperience and lack of money and political heft, why was her showing so dismal? NWMI member Linda Chhakchhuak in the Outlook attributes Sharmila’s loss to having missed the agenda. “The polls weren’t about AFSPA, but who’ll save Valley from Hills,” she says. “And Irom Sharmila didn’t look like a saviour.” Her main opponent, Ibobi Singh, besides nurturing his constituency and providing universal employment, put forth a formula to protect the territorial integrity of Manipur from the onslaught of the movement for an ethnic Naga homeland emanating from the Hills. In fact, he even incorporated the repeal of the AFSPA in his manifesto. Chhakchhuak also analyses the role of Sharmila’s boyfriend in her short-lived political foray – reviled as an ‘outsider’ by her local supporters, he was seen to have adversely influenced her campaign, which was shaky and inconsistent to begin with.
Ironically, while she was rejected by the Manipuri voter, Sharmila’s succinct “Thanks for 90 votes” message posted on Facebook on March 12, has been shared 2800 times and got 7100 ‘likes’ and 849 comments as of the morning March 13.