Rumblings grow within Manipur BJP over CM face
The BJP high-command’s decision to not announce a CM face before the elections has led to speculations in Imphal that the party might repeat its move in Assam last year and replace incumbent N Biren Singh with someone else after the results
With voting for the Manipur assembly elections just days away, rumblings within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over its chief ministerial face have grown louder.
The BJP high-command’s decision to not announce a CM face before the elections has led to speculations in Imphal that the party might repeat its move in Assam last year and replace incumbent N Biren Singh with someone else after the results.
In May last year, despite returning to power in Assam for a second consecutive term, the BJP leadership replaced incumbent Sarbananda Sonowal with senior minister Himanta Biswa Sarma as the CM. Sonowal was subsequently moved to Delhi and accommodated in the Narendra Modi Cabinet. He is currently the Union minister for ports, shipping and waterways and also heads the Ayush ministry.
Polling for the 60-member Manipur legislative assembly will be held in two phases on February 28 and March 5. The votes will be counted on March 10.
“I have nothing to say in the matter. It is for the party leadership to decide (whom they want to place in the CM’s chair),” Biren Singh had stated in an interview with HT last month.
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Biren, who switched over to the BJP from the Congress just months before the 2017 assembly elections, has not had a smooth run in the last five years as the chief minister.
Presiding over a coalition government in the northeastern state, according to a party functionary speaking on condition of anonymity, most of Singh’s time was spent on getting MLAs from the opposition Congress to join the BJP and fending off dissidence from within the party and its allies.
In 2017, the BJP won 21 seats, seven fewer than the Congress, which emerged as the single-largest party but fell short of a simple majority in the 60-member House.
The BJP, however, formed the government with the support of smaller parties such as the National People’s Party (NPP) and the Naga Peoples’ Front (NPF) among others. Soon, several legislators from the Congress also joined the BJP.
Now, ahead of the 2022 assembly polls, the BJP has 28 MLAs while the Congress is reduced to 13. Nine seats are currently vacant due to resignations and disqualification of MLAs.
In order to keep the flock intact, the BJP has named 11 former Congress MLAs, who jumped ship after 2017, in the list of the 60 candidates in the poll fray this year. Interestingly, three sitting BJP legislators were denied tickets.
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The decision has upset several party ticket hopefuls like Ksh Biren Singh, former chief secretary O Nabakishore and former director general of police (DGP) LM Khaute, all of whom immediately joined the Janata Dal (United). Another popular name Nishikant Sapam, who failed to get a BJP ticket, is now contesting as an Independent. Sapam owns a local newspaper, The Sangai Express.
Though Biren’s role was instrumental in holding the BJP-led government in Manipur together, many feel that role might not be required if the party wins a majority in the forthcoming polls.
“Biren was needed in 2017 as he had got contacts within Congress and helped the state’s first BJP government complete the five years, despite some hiccups. If the party gets a majority on its own, he might not be needed to take up the same role,” said a Rastriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) functionary on condition of anonymity.
One of the main contenders to replace Biren is his second in-command in the state cabinet, Th Biswajit, who handles six important portfolios, including public works and power.
Incidentally, Biswajit was in the reckoning for the CM’s post in 2017 as well. However, Biren was picked reportedly because of his experience in governance as a former minister in the Congress-led cabinet.
The tussle between Biren and Biswajit is well known. In the last five years, legislators supporting Biswajit appealed at least twice to the high command to replace Biren as the CM. In 2019, Biren divested the power and public works portfolios from Biswajit, but they were soon handed back after the party leadership’s intervention.
Another name doing the rounds as a possible replacement for Biren is Govindas Konthoujam, the former Manipur Congress president who joined the BJP recently. A party functionary, who did not wish to be named, said Konthoujam could win the race if choosing between Biren and Biswajit gets messy.
Political observers said handing so many tickets to newcomers from the Congress instead of party loyalists might hurt the BJP.
“The party might also suffer due to differences within the BJP on who would get the CM’s seat after announcement of results,” said senior journalist and political observer Pradip Phanjoubam.
“Biren was made the CM in 2017 instead of Bisjwajit as BJP felt he would be able to control Congress. Now Biswajit wants to claim his place. On the other hand, Konthoujam, who has RSS backing, is also a prime contender. But having so many contenders for the top post could backfire for the BJP,” he added.