In this Idea Exchange moderated by political bureau chief Manoj CG, MP and leader of the Congress Party in Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, speaks of the situation in Manipur, why they pushed for the no-confidence motion and his suspension in the Lok Sabha
MANOJ CG: You led a delegation of Opposition MPs to Manipur. Give us a sense of what you saw there.
There is a sense of alienation across the state of Manipur. The age-old amity has boiled down to animosity. This is the metamorphosis that I have observed in Manipur.
Manipur consists of more than 36 tribes. It’s a virtual kaleidoscope of tribal cultures of the Northeastern region. They are people who ethnically belong to the same fraternity, which has been disrupted in the course of history. But now they are mutually baying for blood. We have to delve into why.
As you are aware, the entire state has been divided into hills and plains. You know the demographic compositions also. Now, there is a sense of deprivation perceived by the hill people. They are under the impression that the Chief Minister of Manipur, as he belongs to the Meitei community, is inimical towards them. This is the impression among the Kuki, Zomi, Chin populations, who are inhabitants of the hill area.
The Chief Minister of Manipur has failed to become the Chief Minister of all the tribes of Manipur. He has been playing the Meitei chauvinistic card to retain his popularity among the Meiteis, who are the population of the plains of Manipur. This kind of Meitei chauvinism generated a deceptive narrative to tarnish the hill people as encroachers, poppy cultivators, narco traders, etc.
I think the government has lost its confidence in the judiciary also. They know that if the judiciary is involved, it might upset the apple cart of the ruling dispensation. So they don’t want to take any chances (with the CEC Bill)
The fact is, if you go by the trade of narcotics in this region, specially Manipur, you will find that in this trade all communities are involved. Meiteis, Muslims, Kukis, because it’s a lucrative business. In the hill area, there is not much cultivable land. So how do they eke out a livelihood? A good section of the population thus resorts to this kind of cultivation and trade.
Also, because of the porosity of the border between Myanmar and Manipur, large sections of people of that area, including in Myanmar, belong to the same ethnic group. In the wake of the army coup in Myanmar, there is a huge migration of population who are actually inhabitants of Myanmar. In addition to it, this particular region belongs to the golden triangle, which has earned notoriety for narcotics trade. That is the nitty-gritty of the issue.
This particular hill region is a mineral-enriched region. Five thousand million cubic feet of oil has been detected in the hill area of Manipur. So, this particular region could be tantalising for the corporate lobby of our country also.
During World War II, capitalist America, communist Russia and imperialist Britain were cobbled together to fight the fascist regime. It was… by necessity,… the mother of all inventions. You can say that INDIA,… is also an invention
This area has particularly been recognised by this government as an area to launch the Look East policy, which later has been reincarnated as Act East policy. There is subterranean competition between China and India to grab that particular region. The government of India should be more circumspect and careful in order to prevent the Chinese intention, which is basically an expansion of interest. The Chinese government has a good relationship with the Myanmar junta, they will not leave any stone unturned to spread their tentacles, which may undermine the influence of our country in that particular region. So the issue of Manipur should not be seen as an issue of a state itself. It is an issue which, if neglected now, could ravage the entire Northeastern region in the near future.
That is why we have been striving hard to get the attention of this government in order to stem the rot. The government should use all its resources in order to cut down the violence, to neutralise the people involved in perpetrating the violence, to instil a sense of confidence among the people. These are the bounden duties of the government, but they are simply paying lip service and trying to make us understand that everything is hunky-dory.
MANOJ CG: About the no-confidence motion against the government, in the end, what did you achieve? Later, the Congress said that the PM delivered an election rally-type speech. But you gave him the grand stage.
The achievement is, we have gained huge political traction, which wouldn’t have been gained by us without the invocation of the no-confidence motion.
MANOJ CG: The new bill that the government has tabled, the CEC bill, has the PM, the leader of the Opposition and a cabinet minister in place of the Chief Justice of India…
I think the government has lost its confidence in the judiciary also. They know that if the judiciary is involved, it might upset the apple cart of the ruling dispensation. So, they do not want to take any chances. By appointing one cabinet minister along with Prime Minister, it is easily conceivable that each and every issue will be settled in favour of the government. But for the judiciary’s intervention, the government will not face any kind of obstacle. That is why the judiciary has been kept out.
MANOJ CG: But isn’t it a forward movement in some sense? Even when UPA was in power, you remember the Navin Chawla episode, how the BJP went to the President demanding his removal? The same policy was there then, too. The government had the right to pick the Chief Election Commissioner. At least, there is some forward movement now where you can go register your dissent, seek files etc.
You know the episode of (Ashok) Lavasa (former election commissioner, who struck the sole note of dissent in the Election Commission’s decision to award clean chits to the Prime Minister and the Home Minister for alleged violations of the model code of conduct ahead of the 2019 general elections). The government wants the chief of each institution to be subservient to its diktats. Accordingly, they are framing their plan.
HARIKISHAN SHARMA: Your party brought the no-confidence motion and the INDIA (Opposition alliance) leaders met the President over the Manipur issue. What other options are available with your party to take the issue forward?
In view of the grave situation in Manipur, we thought it prudent to invoke the no-confidence motion. Our single objective was to convey a message to the people of Manipur that they should not suffer from a sense of deprivation or alienation because the entire country is behind them. On behalf of the Congress Party and the INDIA alliance, we have prepared a draft resolution to be passed in Parliament. We submitted it formally to the Speaker’s office. We persuaded the Speaker that the resolution should be thoroughly perused by the government and the Speaker’s office and it should be adopted in a unanimous manner so that we can convey a message from Parliament that whatever may be the differences among the political parties, insofar as the unity in India is concerned, we are all one. What more can a party in Opposition do? Our opportunity in the Parliament always is to flag the attention of the government and that we have done in a befitting manner, in spite of being disparaged.
The Governor of Manipur (Anusuiya Uikey) suggested that in order to restore normalcy and tranquillity in the state, an all-party delegation, including the Treasury and the Opposition, should be sent to Manipur. The Congress has been persuading the government and even the Prime Minister since day one that an all-party delegation be sent to Manipur.
HARIKISHAN SHARMA: When the Chair took the decision to suspend you from the House recently, you and your party members were not in the House. Were you informed in advance?
I was informed by a letter from the Speaker late at night. This resolution was brought by the government itself. Nowadays, we are witnessing a new phenomenon where the government is exploring various ways to circumvent the authority of the Speaker to ensure a more stringent punishment against the Opposition. If either I or anyone from our side may create any hurdle to the smooth running of the House, the Speaker may name him. Once the Speaker names any of the MPs, he is bound to leave the House. Now, a new method has been adopted where it is being cited that you have been suspended and your suspension will continue till the Committee of Privileges scrutinises the matter and submits a report. What does it imply? It implies that you are being hanged first, thereafter, your trial will commence. The Privilege Committee is dominated by the ruling party. It can, at its own whims and fancies, delay the process of scrutiny. This means, your case could drag on and on at its discretion. The chairman of the Privilege Committee belongs to the ruling party. He may resort to dilly-dallying, so I may not be reinitiated shortly. The Privilege Committee can apply this kind of weapon now upon me.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: You must have heard the Prime Minister’s speech against the no-confidence motion. What did you find to be the most predictable thing that he said and something that surprised you in his speech?
This time, Amit Shah’s speech was more argumentative. He is supposed to be more flamboyant vis-a-vis Modiji. On Thursday, Modiji’s speech was nothing but a sheer rigmarole, which did not even satisfy his own cohorts and colleagues. If you go through the visuals of Lok Sabha TV, you will find that most of Modiji’s colleagues were themselves tired of listening to his speech. Modiji tried to drive a wedge in the Opposition ranks through various insinuations. He employed all the weaponry in his disposal. However, he failed to make any impressive argument. This time, the situation was altogether different. Since day one, he was trying to equate the law-and-order problems in Manipur with other states. He mentioned Manipur hardly for 2-3 minutes, out of his long sojourn on national issues, which vindicates the indifference of the Modi government towards Manipur. Till the other day, he was maintaining a deafening silence. But by dint of our persistent pressure, he was finally compelled to appear in the House.
MANOJ CG: Why did you all walk out when the Prime Minister was speaking on your demand? Both the Prime Minister and Amit Shah referred to you in their speeches… How is your rapport with them?
We got tired of listening and wondered what more will he say. It had been two hours. If he had wanted to say something, he would have said it earlier. We tried to bring Modiji’s attention to the Manipur issue, that you speak of it and then we can continue listening to the other things. But after failing to do so for two hours, I decided to go home and watch the rest of his speech on TV. After we walked out, he thought it was a golden opportunity and he spoke about Manipur for barely 3-3.5 minutes.
There are no problems in my personal relationship with Modiji, we keep running into each other at official meetings. When we meet, he speaks nicely, I also respond in a good way. I need to mention this, Modiji is very good with acronyms. In Indian politics, if anyone has got a hang of acronyms and alliterations, it has to be him (laughs). After his US visit when he met President Donald Trump, I said to Modiji, that he had trumped Mr Trump while sitting in America. I appreciated him. There’s a lot to appreciate about Modiji and I do it wherever required. During COP 26 in Scotland (in 2021), all the world leaders were descending the stairs, but Modi was the first among them. This sent out a message that the vishwaguru (world leader) is at the forefront while the rest of the world follows. Vishwaguru aage, duniya bhaage (laughs). We have to commend this specialty about him.
AAKASH JOSHI: The INDIA alliance seems to be presenting a united front. But there’s a real challenge from West Bengal to the alliance. Mamata Banerjee and the Left have been traditionally against the Congress and there has been a lot of violence in the state. How do you see that challenge?
You are right. It is a very difficult kettle of fish. I must appreciate it. But the issue is that necessity knows no bounds. During World War II, capitalist America, communist Russia and imperialist Britain were cobbled together to fight the fascist regime. It was not by choice but by necessity, which is said to be the mother of all inventions. You can also say that INDIA, in a new incarnation, is also an invention.
SHAHID PERVEZ: You are known to be a fierce opponent of Mamata Banerjee, who is a key player in the INDIA Alliance. Now, they are going for seat-sharing negotiations. What are your expectations from the Congress leadership? What will you tell Rahul Gandhi and Mallikarjun Kharge when they talk to Mamata Banerjee about seat-sharing for West Bengal
I don’t know when the seat-sharing talks will happen. I would want the Congress to stand on its own feet and fight elections in Bengal. Mamata Banerjee is not doing charity by joining the alliance. It is, in fact, a compulsion. The reason is that since Independence, Bengal has never felt the threat of communal disharmony or caste-related politics. The people of Bengal practised untouchability with communal politics at one time. That is now over. This is a new scenario and all equations keep changing.
It used to be said that all minority votes were in Mamata Banerjee’s pocket. But there’s been a switch. Now, the minority votes have moved to the Congress. Mamata Banerjee is an astute politician and perhaps, she, too, has realised that it would be easier if we fought together. Even then, I don’t have much information on what is going to happen in Bengal. But I will still say that given a chance, I would want to fight on my own strength in the state. If possible, I will fight alone on my own ticket. This does not mean that I would defy the decision of my party. I will never do that.
MANOJ CG: The government has introduced bills to change the colonial-era IPC and CrPC. We are supposed to be leaving the colonial era behind. There’s a new Parliament, Rajpath has become Kartavya Path and the Budget also has a Hindi name. Don’t you think this resonates with the people and how will you counter this?
In India’s Parliamentary politics, it has never happened that after getting a no-confidence motion, one after another bill has been passed. I mentioned in the House that in 1978, the then Leader of Opposition CM Stephen brought in a no-confidence motion. Morarji Desai was possibly the PM then. The same day, the discussions of the motion began. A no-confidence motion means that there can be no other discussion till the motion has been resolved. This has been our convention. But this time, we saw Bills being passed while the no-confidence motion was pending. This has not happened since Independence. Today’s government does not want to discuss or take the Opposition in its confidence. It does what it pleases. Our Parliamentary foundation, which has strengthened the nation all these years, I fear, is gradually becoming weak.
Among the Bills passed this time, only one is going to the Standing Committee while the others were passed forcefully. One of these deals with choosing the Chief Election Commissioner that you mentioned. I won’t levy accusations against any institution, but I am afraid.