Why Irom Sharmila failed where other activists won

Politics and activism have worked wonderfully well together.

 |  5-minute read |   16-03-2017
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“I will join politics and my fight will continue.”

On August 9, 2016, as Irom Chanu Sharmila broke off her 16-year fast, she uttered these fateful words, not only as an icon of resistance, but also as a symbol of hope.

In a polity which has been desecrated by the presence of a whopping 34 per cent of MPs facing criminal charges, Mengoubi, as she is fondly called, had only one criminal record to flaunt - attempting to sacrifice her life for the sake of fellow Manipuris

It all began on a cold day in November 2000, when ten civilians were shot dead on a bus stop at Malom, a quiet town located in the Imphal valley. Dubbed a massacre, the indiscriminate killings were attributed to the Assam Rifles who were armed with both weapons and immunity.

The incident prompted Sharmila to undertake a fast which was slowly going to turn an unknown poetess into one of the biggest heroines of conscience that India had ever borne witness to.

As years passed, she was moved to and fro between hospitals, courts and prisons. At times she was hailed as a gallant warrior. At other times, her struggle wasn’t newsworthy enough. Flipping between bravery and anonymity, the lady finally decided to shift platforms and try her luck at politics.

Apparently, that was exactly how things were supposed to progress in a nation that is immensely proud of its electoral festivities. A system which blesses everyone who finishes first-past-the-post, with enduring power.

Unfortunately, despite the breadth of your efforts and the length of your struggles, the system does not assure success. And this is precisely what Sharmila failed to understand.

Politics and activism have worked wonderfully well together. Gandhi, the eternal activist who dabbled with politics, often used self-sacrifice as a tool to coerce a foreign government into action. The political party he frequently associated and disassociated with eventually came to rule an independent India, almost unchallenged for six decades.

The 1990s saw the resurgence of the right-wing, whose activists broke a tiny nondescript mosque to build a large political empire. Even as recently as 2011, Anna Hazare, another activist, effectively used fasts as a method to mobilise a disgruntled population towards a common cause.

gandhi-embed_031617052426.jpg Mahatma Gandhi, the eternal activist who dabbled with politics, often used self-sacrifice as a tool to coerce a foreign government into action. Photo: Reuters

A political outfit soon emerged out of the movement, shaping public opinion and seizing power within an incredibly short span of time. However, the same benefits could not accrue to Sharmila’s People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA).

This was primarily because the PRJA simply did not field a sufficient number of candidates. Amid 60 constituencies, the party merely contested three. Even if all were to win, Irom would not have been able to use the legislative forum successfully to trigger the partial withdrawal or removal of the AFSPA, without aligning with a major party.

Secondly, voting patterns have repeatedly shown that people prefer to vote en masse for a party which has a clear agenda, a well-defined strategy and is in a conceivable position to win. On all three parameters, the PRJA, due to its sheer lack of numbers, publicity and grassroots connect, was at a great loss which Sharmila hoped to bridge with her popular appeal.

Thirdly, her party solely relied on her charisma to reap electoral dividends. The need for progressive change in the state of Manipur was evident from the first go. The economic blockade, rising prices, the secretive Naga deal, the long-standing ethnic conflict and a heavy sentiment against anti-incumbency were fruits ripe to be plucked. However, the party’s dearth of financial resources rendered it incapable of capitalising on this dire need.

Fourthly, Sharmila’s move to contest against the incumbent CM was more rooted in symbolism than substance. After her initial decision to contest from her home constituency in Khurai, she decided to suddenly change tracks and enter the fray from Thoubal. That she would lose this seat was a given. Probably that was the burden she was meant to bear for placing idealism over practicality.

Last but not the least, her decision to enter politics was not received kindly by either her family or her people. Her hunger strike gave them a moral high ground, a sense of incomparable ethical advantage. Breaking it off was evidently improper, as was her express desire to marry her long-time partner, Coutanho. She may never have thought that her personal choices would overshadow her lifelong battles. Ultimately, they did.

In the final results declared on March 11, 2017, the amount of votes she polled was even lesser than the amount ascribed to NOTA. "Thanks for 90 votes," she declared on her Facebook page, accepting defeat with poise and grace. Or was it sarcasm?

Even if it was, can we really blame her for it? Can we hold her responsible for having expected her people to side with her? Can we accuse her of trying to mask her immaturity with her experience? Can we assign covert motives to her when all her life has been an overt tale of selflessness?

Another saga that began with enormous optimism has been nipped in the bud. Meanwhile, discord continues to brew and provisions for special powers continue to be widened. After all, what difference could the "Iron Lady" have really made?

Long live democracy!

Also read: The very lonely and very long battle of Irom Chanu Sharmila

Writer

Akil Bakhshi Akil Bakhshi @akil_bakhshi

An idea, wavering on the precipice of imagined obscurity and obvious glory.

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