11 May 2017, IromChanuSharmila received 90 votes in the assembly elections contesting from Thoubal constituency against Ibobi Singh, the incumbent Chief Minister of Manipur. The “Iron Lady” famous for her 16 years old fast to repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act came fourth in the constituency behind BJP candidate Basanta Singh and Trinamool Congress Leishangthem Suresh Singh who received 8000 and 144 votes respectively. Many have cited her electoral loss as a failure to address real developmental issues and inability to generate public support. Manipur has been struggling with employment crisis with a portion of the state living in poverty. The heavyweight National Parties like BJP promised “Development” whereas the Congress promoted the regionalist secular cause with actions like the inclusion of 2 new hill districts pleasing the Meitei community in the valley.
IromSharmila’s party, Peoples Resurgence & Justice Alliance (PRJA)fielded 2 other candidates. IVY League ErendroLeichomban is the co-convener who got 500 votes in Thangmiband. NajimaPhundreimayum, the first Muslim woman to contest in Manipur received 33 votes in Wabagai. Sharmila quit politics after the result and plans to take a “Sabbath” in South India for the time being. On an interview with Indian Express, she wished PRJA well for future endeavors and said, “I will lobby for this cause (AFSPA) all over the world. I don’t know where I will live, but if you serve the people, you can serve them from anywhere”. Thus, activism lives on even though the political journey ends.
In a state like Manipur, regional parties offer an important ally to form the govt. Parties like NPF and NPP have won 4 seats respectively. They provide the support to make 31 seats needed to form the majority. IromSharmila’s PRJA could have been an important3rd front had they fielded more candidates. The logistics of their failure can be many but one of the core reasons was their rejection to be inclined among the mainstream political parties which eventually backfired. IromSharmila claimed she rejected advances from many political parties even on the day of the polling. PRJA accepted a donation from the AAP but were not politically inclined. The goal of achieving an alternate political ground could not have been realized with 3 candidates at disposal. Even, if all the 3 candidates had won; their political narrative would have forbidden them from giving support to BJP or the Congress. The voters are usually blamed for voting for money and power but this inability to form a major political ground by the PRJA demotivated the voters.
The neck and neck competition between BJP and Congress is a cause for concern for regional politics with the formation of North-East Democratic Alliance or NEDA, a political coalition formed on May 24, 2016 by Bharatiya Janata Party along with regional political parties like Naga People's Front, Sikkim Democratic Front, People's Party of Arunachal, Asom Gana Parishad and Bodoland People's Front in Northeast India. BJP's aim to have a “congress-Free” Northeast, in a way has demolished any existing regional political party providing an opposition to it. The regional parties are losing their stronghold either by joining the NEDA or becoming invalid. For example, The Assam Gana Parishad who used to dominate the political scene in Assam is now a minor partner of the BJP in Assam. This has created a classic binary common in Indian Politics where the fight becomes Congress vs. BJP. The alternative to BJP became Congress in the case of Manipur. BJP has openly favored the AFSPA and the real irony is them forming the new Government in the state of Irom. Irom lost by 90 votes but by what margin did the people of Manipur lost?
As for the future of anti-AFSPA movements, one should understand Antonio Gramsci’s famous maxim, “Pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will”. Revolutionaries should not be romantic idealists playing out their own fantasies in a social vacuum nor should they succumb to defeatism and apathy. The next course of action should be a middle path between Sharmila and the current regionalist parties succumbing to the hegemony of NEDA.