This past Saturday when news began pouring in that anti-AFSPA activist Irom Sharmila Chanu was staring down a massive defeat in her debut election, shocked reactions from across the country began pouring in. By the time the votes had been counted, the fact that she managed to secure only 90 votes elicited the kind of social media response typical of those unaware of the political scenario of the Northeast. However, hardly anyone in her home state of Manipur was surprised by the outcome.
Last year in August, Sharmila, who had been demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), broke her nearly 16-year long fast to contest the legislative assembly polls after forming the Peoples Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA). While her decision to quit her fast and enter electoral politics was met with criticism from many quarters, she and her party believed that they could make a mark on the state’s political landscape. Unfortunately, not many voters felt the same way.
While the PRJA had fielded only three candidates, including Sharmila, it did it best to fend off predictions of a massive loss. Its co-convenor, Erendro Leichombam, who contested from the Thangmeiband constituency and managed to secure only 573 votes, had earlier said he was confident that all three of its candidates would “win by a huge margin”.
While the PRJA and Sharmila’s first tryst with politics was admired by some, most people in Manipur knew that the outcome of the election would play out unfavourably for them.
“That (election result) was not at all shocking for us,” says one rights activist from the capital Imphal, and resonates what many feel led to the debacle of the party that hoped to buck the trend and make AFSPA an election issue when adding that “PRJA is unfortunately very disconnected with the reality of electoral politics”.
The common narrative attempting to explain the massive defeat of the party’s star candidate and a global icon is that elections in Manipur are not fought on the plank of repealing AFSPA or conflict or militarisation. Most people care about employment and “which candidate can help them get jobs and facilities”.
In a state where the unemployment rate is higher than the national average, this is an important issue in the minds of voters. Nowhere was this more evident than in Thoubal constituency where Sharmila took on the incumbent chief minister, Okram Ibobi Singh.
Ibobi Singh is a veteran who had successfully fought from the constituency thrice in the past and ruled the state for 15 years. So sure was he of his victory that never once did he publicly scoff Sharmila’s foray into politics and welcomed her move. His confidence perhaps stemmed from the fact that he has “provided jobs” to almost every family in the constituency during his tenure.
Some also feel that Singh had successfully managed to steer the conversation towards Manipur’s “territorial integrity” amongst the dominant Meitei population living primarily in the Imphal Valley which frequently faces paralyzing economic blockades whenever there is a show of anger against the government in the surrounding hill districts.
Perhaps one of the biggest blows that Sharmila was hit with was the anger and disappointment from other anti-AFSPA activists including the mothers who had staged a naked protest in 2004 against the alleged rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama by Assam Rifles personnel. Many of her long-time supporters felt and advised her against entering politics. Her decision to take a new route caused her to lose the support of an important and influential demographic group.
Apart from her decision to enter politics, her relationship with Desmond Coutinho has been a bone of contention amongst some of her supporters and other activists. Coutinho’s had an uneasy relationship with Sharmila’s supporters and others in Manipur, to put it lightly.
Reportedly, in 2011 when Coutinho first visited Manipur after staying in touch with Sharmila through letters, he was initially not allowed visit by other activists. And after two days when he was finally allowed to meet her, his reported insistence on sitting with Sharmila at the meira shang (women’s shelter) where the influential Meira Paibis (Women Torchbearers) had gathered, caused much anger. What didn’t help further is that he has been critical of many of those in Manipur who have supported Sharmila’s fight including activists and local journalists. Recently, Sharmila issued a statement apologizing for Coutinho’s use of foul language against some of those who had stood with her during her fast and continue to do so.
Her private matters aside, Sharmila has since said she will quit politics for good but will continue to fight AFSPA and extend her support to PRJA. She has also said that she looks forward to get married to Coutinho and has plans to go to an ashram for some time before taking the next step.
Just a day after the results were declared, and as people outside of Manipur continued to express their shock over Sharmila’s defeat, Manipur itself was more preoccupied with talks of government formation.
By Monday evening, the Congress’ Ibobi Singh had resigned as chief minister to pave way for the BJP’s Nongthombam Biren Singh. Although the Congress emerged as the single largest party with 28 MLAs in the 60-member house, the BJP with its 21 MLAs managed to reach the majority with the support of the National People’s Party and the Naga People’s Front which has four MLAs each, Congress MLA T Shyamkumar, Trinamool Congress’ T Robindro and independent MLA Ashad Uddin.
Meanwhile, Irom Chanu Sharmila, called by many names including the Iron Lady of Manipur and Mengoubi (the fair one), may ride off into the sunset as a forgotten figure like she did on her cycle during her campaign days.