The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Even as the media remained preoccupied with the Congress debacle in Punjab and Uttarakhand, an interesting scenario was unfolding in Manipur. The Congress-Communist Party of India coalition had gone into the polls as the first ministry to have completed five years in office, and returned to power too. This double feat did not quite get the notice it deserved, but then, the people of Manipur have got used to hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons.

What was so remarkably different about Okram Ibobi Singh’s rule in Manipur that the anti-incumbency factor did not work in his case' The election in Manipur was held in the backdrop of a rising demand for civil security, for withdrawal of the AFSPA. The Indian army has frequently been accused of wanton savagery against ordinary citizens, particularly women, in the name of fighting extremists. Protests against army atrocities kept life paralysed for days in Imphal and other parts of Manipur. The opposition Manipur People’s Party had led many of these agitations, triggering expectations of its victory. It managed to win only five of the 60 assembly seats.

So were the agitations without any basis' Far from it. But the voters had realized that since it was the Centre which could withdraw the act, or make it more tolerable, they would achieve little by electing a non-UPA force. The campaign promise of Sonia Gandhi to review the AFSPA made the choice easier for the people. Since Ibobi Singh himself was not too comfortable with the act, it was felt that with the people’s mandate, his government would be in a better position to put added pressure on New Delhi.

It would, however, be unfair to believe that the Congress-CPI coalition has won just because the Congress was seen as a better bet in negotiation with the Centre. It must have brought stability to the state — one indicator of this was the success of Manipur in the just-concluded National Games. There are also indications that the youth in Imphal and other towns are looking for an environment in which they can pursue their careers in peace. As students, many of them have tasted life in cities outside the state and wonder why things cannot be the same back home.

The AFSPA was not the only irritant, the Meiteis have been feeling threatened by demands that the Naga-dominated Ukhrul and Senapati districts be taken away and merged with Nagaland. Again, it was felt that the Congress would be more effective in persuading the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim to soften the demand.

The maturity shown by the Manipuris in choosing their government should teach New Delhi to be less dismissive of the north-eastern corner of India. The mandate implies a lot of tightrope walking for Ibobi Singh and the Congress. Will they prove equal to the task' Promises unfulfilled in Manipur may have repercussions which could travel far beyond the North-east.

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