Fighter Irom's stunning defeat

When Irom Chanu Sharmila decided to plunge into active politics by contesting against then chief minister and Congress heavyweight Okram Ibobi Singh on his own turf instead of her home constituency of Khurai, nobody thought the job would be easy even for Manipur’s “Iron Lady”. Singh is well established, rooted and understands the constituency, its people and issues.

Sharmila was new not only to the constituency but to local pressures and to electoral politics itself. People knew it would be difficult if not impossible to defeat Singh though the anti-incumbency sentiment against a three-term CM offered some opportunities. In that sense, Sharmila’s defeat was not surprising. But her total vote count of a mere 90 has come as a shocker, and people in faraway corners of the country are now asking how and why did such a celebrated activist fail in so spectacular a fashion.

In fact, the battle in the CM’s constituency of Thoubal decimated everyone but the winner: Singh got 18,649 votes, well ahead of BJP’s Leitanthem Basanta Singh, who bagged 8,179 votes. Sharmila got less than even the Trinamool Congress contender who managed a meagre 144 votes.

Sharmila’s struggle started in the sleepy town of Malom in November 2000, when 10 civilians were gunned down allegedly by the Assam Rifles personnel, emboldened by immunity under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts (AFSPA), 1958. Rattled by this horrific incident, the young poetess took a decision that was destined to make her world famous. She started a fast-unto-death, demanding the repeal of the draconian AFSPA.

The friends and assorted allies around Sharmila helped her get good publicity but developed into a coterie as her struggle continued for 16 long years. They wanted her fast to continue. Being in and out of hospital, and force-fed under court orders, she needed their support to build up her narrative against the AFSPA. But as she attained a demigod like status, the coterie, allegedly including some of her close family members, exploited this stature.

Sharmila announced the withdrawal of her fast on July 26, 2016, and eventually did it on August 9, partly influenced by Desmond Coutinho, an NRI originally from Goa who became close to Sharmila and wanted her to withdraw while her supporters asked her to stick on. The differences took their own toll on the struggle.

Immediately after her release, Sharmila found much to her shock that she was virtually alone. The huge group of supporters had deserted the iron lady and even her brother expressed disappointment at her decision. When she formed the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance, Sharmila had neither money nor the people to manage the election.

The fact that her party contested only three seats proves that conclusively. The only other two candidates from her Alliance in election 2017 — the Harvard-educated Erendro Leichombam, who contested from Thangmeiband and Najima Bibi from Wabagai — also received a drubbing, bagging 573 and 33 votes, respectively.

Naïve, emotional

There is a powerful section of the civil society that strongly feels Sharmila is too naïve and emotional and not cut out for the rough and tumble of electoral politics. Many people in Manipur want the AFSPA dead and buried. But they are equally concerned about other issues like rising prices, growing unemployment, economic blockade, endless ethnic conflicts which her party failed to highlight. As a result, the mass voters could not relate to her lukewarm campaign based on one issue.

Also, the established parties are quite adept in the electoral game. A staggering amount has been spent here by both the Congress and the BJP in the recent election. Apart from that, a subterranean feeling of patriarchy, not uncommon in Manipuri society, quietly worked against her.

When the results were declared, Irom Sharmila’s eyes welled up, but she did not allow her tears to diminish her steely resolve. Yet, there was also a glimpse into why she failed at this juncture. Electoral politics is all about convincing people and then gracefully bowing to their verdict. Sharmila on the other hand was quoted as saying that the people she spoke to were sympathetic to her cause but voted for others, and that they were “selfish”.

It was in a way an admission that she was a fighter who was more at home battling it out and steadfast in her struggle, rather than accepting the fact that ordinary voters back home can think and act differently.

(Bora is an author based in Guwahati)
(The Billion Press)

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