If you looked at headlines in the national media about the Manipur elections, you'd probably think that Irom Sharmila was the biggest political force in the state. The little coverage that the Manipur elections receive is centred on Sharmila, and most stories feature her image. These stories would lead you to believe that she's the top contender for leading the state. Unfortunately, these articles are a testament to the neglect that the Northeastern states face in the national conscience. They represent the lack of research that reporters put into covering stories from states like Manipur and they show the compulsion of the media to do stories that sell instead of real reportage.
Irom Sharmila endured a long struggle by fasting for over 16 years as a protest against the Armed Forces Special Provision Act (AFSPA) in Manipur. This brought her international recognition and fame, making her a celebrity in Manipur, but it did not achieve much else. When the law and order situation of the state improved, AFSPA was repealed from the Imphal area. The army too has worked hard in reforming its image in the state by undertaking social and infrastructure projects. This has made AFSPA a less pressing issue in a state that faces rampant corruption, unemployment and water scarcity. These issues affect the people's lives every day.
Irom Sharmila is a great activist who has sacrificed a lot for her cause, but she is not fit to lead a state... and the people know it.
What the national media hasn't picked up on is that Irom Sharmila and her party are not a political force in Manipur. They are not in contention to win the state, especially since they aren't contesting even five out of the state's 60 assembly seats. Also, they are unlikely to win even one seat. Her party, People's Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) was slated to contest on five seats, but has since then dropped to only contesting three seats. Irom Sharmila herself has dropped out from the race in her home constituency of Khurai and is now only contesting a symbolic battle against the Chief Minister in Thoubal. Their candidate from the Lilong Assembly Constituency, Md. Illyas Khan, was removed from the party for alleged anti-party activity, which leaves them with just three seats to contest and they aren't amongst the top contenders in any of them.
Irom Sharmila lost a lot of support from the people of Manipur when she decided to end her 16-year-long fast and enter into politics. Her core group of supporters deserted her in the initial days of her political career. When I had just come to Manipur, I saw this as a horrible thing for the people to have done. I believed that anyone who had fasted for an issue for 16 years deserved extensive support. What I have come to understand since then is that the people of Manipur knew her better than I did. Irom Sharmila is a great activist who has sacrificed a lot for her cause, but she is not fit to lead a state. People understand that politics doesn't require just celebrity and the ability to sacrifice; it also requires knowledge and skill.
People have no trust in Sharmila's ability to execute because she has never executed. She has spent so much of her life fighting for just one cause that there is no trust in her ability to achieve anything as a politician. She is known across the state for being moody and eccentric, traits that are probably required of someone who is able to fast for 16 years, but wholly unacceptable in a politician. The choices that she has made in her personal life also led to a lack of faith in her judgment of people. She's recently had to apologise publicly for the behaviour of her partner, Desmond Cutinho, who has often fought with and abused her supporters for incomprehensible reasons. These facts, combined with the naiveté that she brings into politics, is something that the national media has failed to look into.
Her entire party is more interested in gaining the national spotlight rather than actual votes.
Her entire party is more interested in gaining the national spotlight rather than actual votes. This is made amply clear by the fact that her media management team concentrates on national publications and online news outlets, which have limited reach in the state of Manipur. The local dailies of Manipur have almost never featured Irom Sharmila or her party as the top story, yet she's dominated the national coverage of the elections.
Her statement to an NDTV journalist about the fact that the BJP had offered her ₹36 crores to contest the elections was played repeatedly for two days, but the follow-up didn't receive even close to the same coverage. The video of Sharmila making the claim shows how out of depth she is in the political landscape:
The national general secretary of the BJP, Ram Madhav, responded by stating that the entire BJP budget for the Manipur campaign wasn't ₹36 crores and there was no question of the party offering her money. The BJP MLA in Manipur, Th. Biswajit Singh also asked Sharmila to name the person from BJP who had made the offer, to which she gave the name "Surbindo". No one of this name exists in either the national or state leadership of the party. Making a wild claim like this in the national media either shows (a) someone who is craving the media spotlight at any cost or (b) someone who is naïve enough to believe any random person who claims to be from BJP without any substantiation. Neither is a trait that a serious politician should have.
Why the national media chooses to cover a fringe component of an election, while ignoring the stories of suffering, corruption and ethnic polarisation is anyone's guess.
These elections in Manipur are the most hotly contested polls in the history of the state. The BJP is a strong contender to win the state for the first time in history. The state has been ruled by a Chief Minister who is popularly known as "Mr. 10 percent" because of his alleged corruption. It has also been reeling under an economic blockade that has lasted for over 100 days and has caused unprecedented polarisation between the Nagas in the hills and the Meitei community in the valley. The three-term Chief Minister, who was facing a strong wave of anti-incumbency has brought himself back into contention through political manoeuvring and alleged deals with insurgent outfits. Yet the only real national coverage that the state's elections have received has been about a lady that has no chance of even remotely affecting the political fortunes of the state.
Why the national media chooses to cover a fringe component of an election extensively, while ignoring the stories of suffering, corruption and ethnic polarisation is anyone's guess.
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Disclaimer: The author is working as a political consultant for the Bharatiya Janata Party in Manipur.