When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had formed the government in alliance with National People’s Party (NPP) and Nagaland’s Naga People’s Front (NPF) in 2017, even after securing seven seats less than the incumbent Congress, many had doubts over the stability of such a Government. N Biren Singh, a former foot-baller and journalist, who had joined the BJP in 2016 not just completed a five year term in the difficult state of Manipur but also created a narrative of blockade-free Manipur. Just a few months before the elections, there have been attempts to derail the peace process to negate the advantage to the BJP. The 2022 assembly elections in Manipur will decide whether the BJP will be able to continue with its roller-coaster ride in the Northeast India or the militancy based on parallel governance, separate identities and secessionism regain the space. On this backdrop, Chief Minister of Manipur N Biren Singh had a free and frank conversation with Prafulla Ketkar, Editor and W Rorrkychand Singh, Manipur Correspondent Organiser Weekly, on the achievements, issues and future agenda for Manipur. Excerpts:
Before the 2017 elections, Manipur used to be in news for boycotts, violence, general strikes. Now you claim that story has changed. What has happened in the five years?
That’s the miracle of Narendra Modi and the BJP. I was in politics for the last 20 years and I was with other parties also. But after joining the BJP, what I saw and feel is – the BJP leaders in Delhi guide us as guardians. That is the difference. So, the visionary and dynamic central leaders like Hon’ble PM Modi Ji and Hon’ble Home Minister Amit Shah Ji have supported me a lot to deliver the programmes on the ground. With their support I implemented the schemes of the Union Government to the best of my ability. Besides, I started some innovative ideas like ‘Go to Hills’. There was a gap between the hill and valley people in Manipur. The villagers were not getting the benefits of welfare schemes that the Central Government started. So I initiated the schemes like ‘Go to Village’ and door step delivery of welfare schemes. This change is a process and we have stated that based on the strong partnership of the Centre and the State.
What is going to be your main plank for this election?
In a way boycott-free, blockade-free Manipur is our main poll plank. Besides this the reduced gap between the hills and the valley is another major achievement. I do contact people, civil society organisations and public leaders. Soon after assuming the CM office, I started interacting with people through the Public Darbar on the 15th of every month. I do my best to solve the grievances directly. On the 10th of every month I do meet all the hill leaders. After meeting them, I came to know the actual problem of the people in hill areas. I also interacted with the various civil society organisations like ATSUM, KSO, UNC, AMUCO, UCM, etc., time to time and now they have developed a confidence in me and my Government. Even before starting any agitation, they approach me with their demands. The direct connect with the people benefits a lot and that was the mantra to stay away from bandh and general strike in the last 5 years.
Besides that there were many needy people who did not get the benefit of the schemes. I launched Chief Minister Gi Hakshelgi Tengbang (CHMT) in 2018 providing Rs 2 lakh for medical treatment and now this is the talk of the town. Fortunately, Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PMJAY) also was introduced in September 2018, joining together now around 8,00,000 families out of 2,80,000 families are getting the benefit of CHMT and Ayushman Bharat amounting Rs 8-9 lakh. All the Central government schemes were delivered on top of peace, development harmony and co-existence. For us, Development, Delivery and Harmonious coexistence is our poll-plank.
We have seen in the last few months there have been attempts to derail the peace. There are couples of violent incidents too. Opposition is questioning your ‘peace narrative’ now. How are you going to counter this?
It is the handy work of opposition with some of the elements who are losing their relevance. But people want the BJP government to come back again. Opposition will try to disturb the peace process as their politics thrived on bandh, disturbance and parallel economy. But now people know and understand, people are witnessing the change. They are trying to destabilise the government and people are not allowing them to do so. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is not a new issue, every year it is getting renewed; it is not a law brought in by the BJP, it has been there since 1985. When the situation will improve, AFSPA will automatically be removed. So for the common voters, this derailment of peace is no longer acceptable.
You spoke about bridging the valley-hill gap. But the Congress leaders allege that the gap has increased. How can just infrastructure connectivity improve the emotional gap?
People feel inequality in terms of development. For instance, Ema Keithel (Mother’s market – famous all women market of Imphal) is not there in hill areas; it is only confined at the capital. So, just after assuming office, I started going to the hills along with the message of ‘Go to Hills’ and construction of Ema Keithel in all the hill districts. With the help of the Central Government, we have improved communication like anything. During the pandemic with the help of the Central Government and Hon’ble Prime Minister every district has oxygen plant but earlier there was not a single oxygen plant in the state. There were no higher education in the hill districts and now with the help of Hon’ble Prime Minister, a medical college was given to hill district of Churachanpur. Under Jal Jeevan Mission also hill areas are provided with tap water. Recently, Hon’ble Prime Minister had inaugurated water supply schemes in Senapati and Tamenglong districts. So the basic requirements like education through School Phagathansi (Lets Improve School) under which 125 school were modified and improved government schools. In tourism, Siroy Festival of Ukhrul and Cherry Blossom Festival of Mao which were district or sub-division level festivals had been promoted to the international level after BJP came into power. There was no sports infrastructure in hill and I have developed a football stadium in Tamenglong, even the Astroturf football grounds in Senapati and Ukhrul. I am giving confidence to the people that whatever is at Imphal is also there in the hill area. Practical and visible change is needed in politics not just rhetoric. I am just following the vision provided by Modi ji and Amit ji and trying my best to realise it on the ground.
“Tell the CM” has been another flagship program of yours. But, discrimination in delivery is still an accusation against your Government.
Before the pandemic started, I used to meet, interact and address the grievances of the people directly. But due to the pandemic that communication line was lost. Then my government opened a dedicated help line for sharing problems. Whatever may be the grievances – they are recorded and shared with the concerned departments. I personally monitor them with the officials. Across the regions and communities, everyone shares their grievances and therefore, these allegations have no basis.
You have done a few things on education. Even some central institutes like National Sports University have come up in the states but skills and employability are still big key issues and opposition is trying to make it a poll plank – where are the jobs especially post pandemic?
People who make these kind of sweeping statements perhaps have not seen the NITIAYOG report. Manipur is ranked first state among the small states in India when it comes to skilling and employability. Through MSMEs, we have given employment to lakhs of youths. Start Up, Stand Up, Business Support, Loktak Livelihood Mission and recently we have signed a MoU with TATA to impart skills to youths in Manipur. We are giving loans to fishermen, the fish production has increased, earlier we used to import fish worth around Rs 400 crore, now it has been drastically reduced.
War against drugs has been another initiative of your government, but still the menace continues.
I am a sportsman, I hate drugs. Even as a journalist, I used to speak on this issue. I feel very sad, but with the blessings of God and Central Government immediately after coming to the CM seat I started and announced openly that the government is launching a war on Drugs. But the difficulty that face these days is that our hill terrain is difficult to reach out. But I opened law and order groups to monitor how many acres of poppy plantations were destroyed on daily basis. Poppy plantation is supported by militant groups, especially which are under Suspension of Operation (SoO). We are continuing destroying of poppy plantation and taking legal actions against the drug smugglers. District committees have been formed to execute the war on drugs. The state government had sent an ordinance for clearance to central government to implement stringent actions for drug abuse and smugglings. Once it is cleared the state government will get more strength to enforce war on drugs.
Important thing that we need to understand is the relationship between drug-trafficking and militancy. They thrive on each other. That is why we have initiated a peace process through agreements with the various groups and by introducing a rehabilitation policy for the ex-militants. Till now, we are getting a good response and many militants are joining the democratic process. We are looking after the safety of their families and that is giving them the necessary confidence.
You have done bridging the chasm between the hill and valley divide. But, despite increased connectivity, the emotional disconnect with the so called mainland India is still an issue. What is your vision for making the Manipuri identity as part of the larger national Indian identity?
That precisely is my work and that is what the BJP stands for. There are no anti-India feelings in Manipur. Yes, there was a sense of discrimination which is being addressed through infrastructure connectivity and efficient delivery system. Manipuri communities, diaspora and students were helped by locals in different parts of the country during the pandemic, which was a great emotional connector. I personally sent requests to the Karyakartas of BJP and other nationalist organisations and they helped out thousands of Manipuri people to reach safely to their homes during the lockdowns. Such acts send good vibes among the people. The state government is working on nurturing nationalism. PM Modi is planning to establish private Sainik schools; this will also boost nationalism among the young generations. Besides this, inclusion of history, geography and people of Northeast in the school curriculum of NCERT, CBSE would help in building oneness.
What is your election campaign strategy during the Pandemic?
We are a cadre-based party that works day and night for the people. We don’t need any more campaign. We are trying to reach out to the people thought digital campaigns and our local karyakartas. For a well-organised party this campaigning is not a problem. Health and elections both are important. So we are trying to balance the both.
You look confident but the surveys are showing neck to neck fight between the BJP and Congress.
Where is Congress? In 2017, there were 28 MLAs now out of them 13 are there with the party. Organisationally, Congress is the weakest in Manipur and will find it difficult to touch even two digit mark. We are confident of BJP forming a government on its own after the elections.