Irom Sharmila Is Not for Sale
In October, a couple of months after she ended her 16-yearlong fast, Irom Sharmila, the iron lady of Manipur, formed a political party—the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA). Manipur goes to the polls in two phases, on March 4 and 8; Sharmila is contesting from Thoubal, seat of the chief minister, Okram Ibobi Singh. And though she stands little chance of winning, sparks have already begun to fly.
According to the PRJA’s expenses report, the party spent about Rs 1.63 lakh from January 1 to 10, more than three times the Rs 43,218 it spent through December. Though rising, the expenses are petty for a political party—especially in the light of Sharmila’s recent claims that the BJP offered her Rs 36 crore to contest the elections. That is the figure, she says, the party calculated it would take to beat Ibobi Singh, a Congress stalwart and Manipur’s chief minister for close to 15 years. She says she turned down the offer, intending to fight her campaign on resources her party can raise for itself—at present, slightly more than Rs 3 lakh.
The BJP has dismissed Sharmila’s allegations. “I have great respect for her commitment to the welfare of her state, but such baseless allegations don’t go with what she stands
for”, says Assam finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is also the convenor of the North-East Democratic Alliance, a political coalition of the BJP and various regional parties. BJP general secretary Ram Madhav y accused her of lying, and the party has threatened to take legal action if Sharmila fails to substantiate her story. Whatever the truth, Sharmila’s political debut is likely to be an uphill struggle. Ibobi Singh retains immense support on his home turf, and is unlikely to view Sharmila as a threat. The recent decision to create new districts has enhanced his popularity among the Meitei majority, even if it has angered the Nagas. The United Naga Council, vigorously opposed to the new divisions, has imposed an economic blockade on the state since November.
Win or lose, the question is this: will the assembly elections give Sharmila the necessary experience to become as compelling a politician as she was an activist?