11/03/2017 2:43 PM IST | Updated 11/03/2017 9:36 PM IST

Why 'Iron Lady' Irom Sharmila Lost So Badly In Her Maiden Election Contest In Manipur

All of 90 people voted for her.

Vijay Mathur / Reuters
File photo of Irom Sharmila Chanu, 44, who lost her maiden election contest in Manipur state on Saturday, 11 March, 2017.

When internationally-renowned human rights activist Irom Sharmila announced her decision to step into politics last year, it was welcomed by both national media and political parties. Barely seven months since then, the 44-year-old lost spectacularly to three-time chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh in Manipur's Thoubal constituency on Saturday. Compared to the 18,649 votes polled in Ibobi's favour, only 90 people voted for Sharmila. This means about 0.33% of the constituency voted for her.

How did such a well-loved figure in Manipur get it so wrong?

BIJU BORO via Getty Images
Indian human rights activist and election candidate Irom Sharmila (C) takes part in her final day of election campaigning for the second phase of assembly elections in Thoubal district of Manipur on March 6, 2017.

In late January, she told HuffPost India in an exclusive interview that the reception she had received so far in Thoubal was "mixed", but that people in the district were eager for change.

"I will win. I am very confident," she had said.

Yet, when asked about her electoral plank, she was vague at best.

"I think mainly in the human right issues and corruption. Discriminations, exploitations of people around there. His, mine. Beneficial issues (sic)," she said.

Months after she announced that she would fight from her home constituency, Khurai, she dropped it without any formal announcement, and only because she couldn't find a place to stay there. No one from her party replaced her as a candidate in the district either.

Sharmila, who has won several international human rights awards, announced last year that she was forming the Peoples' Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) party. "This election will be different only because we are the change," she told HuffPost India in January, adding that both the leading national parties — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress — were practically "the same".

While she passionately spoke about living in a democracy, and the discrimination people faced in the northeastern state, she was oddly blank about her campaign strategy.

She described how she would ride in her bicycle and stop along the way to speak to her supporters.

"When I rode on my bicycle alone, (they would say) oh Sharmila is going, Sharmila is riding (sic)," she told HuffPost India. "And they just inform each other to look at me. And they would stop me, oh, where? Stay for a while. Let's have talk. (sic)"

In Thoubal, not only was Sharmila no match for Ibobi, she wasn't even second in place. The Bharatiya Janata Party's Leitanthem Basanta Singh was the only candidate who made even a dent in the votes that were heavily in Ibobi's favour by winning just over 8,000 votes. Even Trinamool Congress' Leishangthem Suresh Singh received more votes (144) than the much better-known Sharmila.

Sharmila's loss is not a reflection on her popularity in the state, but on her shortcomings as a political leader.

Sharmila's loss is not a reflection on her popularity in the state, but on her shortcomings as a political leader. Everywhere HuffPost India travelled in Manipur, few people even appeared to register that she was contesting in the upcoming elections, and even fewer were convinced she could be a political representative.

Despite dissatisfaction with the 15-year-old Congress rule in the state, voters HuffPost India interviewed — including Meiteis, Kukis and Nagas — appeared to swing between Congress and BJP, but never the PRJA. It was clear that Sharmila had not been able to convert her local popularity and international fame to a political advantage.

HuffPost India
Irom Sharmila was not a real threat to Ibobi Singh.

Even Sharmila's explanation on how candidates from her party were selected for contesting in various constituencies was haphazard. In fact, she refused to even call PRJA "her" party.

"I have no right to pick them. It is not my party. It is a collective party based on collective decision," she told HuffPost India, adding that candidates decided their constituencies based on discussion and debate within the party. "Our party is based on understanding peace, love and justice, based on principle, based on justice for all."

The party attracted many young volunteers and activists, including the Harvard-educated Erendro Leichombam, who is the co-convenor of PRJA. Leichombam, who came back to India four years ago from the US, contested in Thangmeiband. Despite his passionate campaigning, he did not fare much better — he received just over 500 votes, while the real fight remained between the Congress and BJP candidates, who polled thousands of votes in their favour.

Sharmila's explanation on how candidates from her party were selected for contesting in various constituencies was haphazard.

Like any young party, PRJA has several lessons to learn from this election — if they plan to seriously take part in Manipur politics in the future. A clearly-defined political plan, an election strategy in the constituencies they contest in, and bringing in some seasoned politicians would serve them well.

The party's attempt to enter Manipur politics was not especially ambitious this year--only three candidates were fielded in three constituencies. Najima Phundreimayum, the first Muslim woman to contest in Manipur elections, contested from Wabagai. She, too, received only 33 votes at the end.

Even as there is a strong anti-incumbency wave in Manipur — it has been a neck and neck competition between Congress and BJP — Sharmila's PRJA remained out of the picture. Though she was the darling of the people of Manipur while she continued her 16-year-old fast protesting against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts (AFSPA), she wasn't able to convince them of her political acumen. It is also possible that many of her fellow Manipuris are yet to forgive her for ending her fast.

While campaigning, she told HuffPost India that many people asked her why she gave up her fast. Most were angry at her for giving it up she said, but they would — according to her — quickly change their minds after speaking to her for a few minutes.

Sharmila has earlier explained her decision to enter politics as a means to find a more effective way to get the government to repeal AFSPA. But, as Saturday's election results suggest, Sharmila may have underestimated how elections are fought in India.

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