Imphal: Manipur Chief Minister and senior BJP leader Nongthombam Biren Singh, 61, is confident of retaining power by securing at least 40 seats (in the 60-member assembly) and said that his government would propose to the Centre to withdraw the contentious Armed Forces (Special Power) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) when a conducive situation arises in the state.
A former footballer and editor of a vernacular newspaper, Singh, who led the first BJP-led coalition government in Manipur since 2017, during an interview with IANS said that national security and the situation in the neighbouring coup hit Myanmar would be given top priority before withdrawing the AFSPA, which turned into a top political issue in the entire northeastern region after the killing of 14 people in neighbouring Nagaland by the security forces in December last year.
A Congress-turned-BJP leader, Singh has been in the active politics for more than two decades. He was first elected to the Manipur assembly in 2002 and this time too, would contest from his traditional Heingang seat.
Singh said that BJP would secure two-third majority as government has done a lot of good work and development besides improving the law and order situation in the state.
Following are excerpts from the interview :
Q: How much are you confident of retaining power ?
A: We are expecting two-third majority this time.
Q: What are the reasons behind this confidence ?
A: I am a ground level… grassroots level politician. I know the pulse of the people. Keeping that in mind in the last five years I am doing my best with the guidance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah as well as the party President J.P. Nadda and other central leaders.
With ‘Go to Hills’ and ‘Go to Village Mission’ schemes, we are reaching out to village to village, house to house providing various benefits of the Central government and the state government at the door steps of the people.
We have launched many schemes. Under Chief Minister-gi Hakshelgi Tengbang (health assurance scheme), Rs 2 lakh is being provided for medical treatment to the needy people, and so far, 4.5 lakh people got the benefit from the scheme.
Under the Centre’s ‘Ayushman Bharat’ scheme, a benefit of Rs 5 lakh is being given to the needy people and the number of beneficiaries in Manipur of the scheme also crossed 4 lakh.
So, altogether, we have provided free health schemes’ benefit to around 8.5 lakh people.
When our government came to power (in 2017), only 5.7 per cent of the total households were connected with tap water (to get the drinking water) and now, in the last five years, we have crossed 62 per cent of households.
In road communication and aiming self-empowering of youths through Start-up, Stand-up and business support schemes, we are providing huge earning scopes to the youths.
All these schemes are delivered at the doorsteps of the people through the ‘Go to Hills’ and ‘Go to Village Mission’ schemes.
Talking about the law and order situation, it has tremendously improved while in the last 15-20 years Manipur was known to be a troubled state but now in the last 5 years, there was no general strike, no shutdown, no blockade, no fighting between the communities.
Instead, a cohesive relationship between the people of hills and valleys is now prevailing in Manipur.
These are the few things for which I am claiming that this time we are going to cross two-third majority seats (in the 60-member assembly).
Above all, the long cherished desire of the people for the Inner Line Permit (ILP) introduced in the state by the central government to preserve and protect our identity, heritage and culture.
For the ILP, we are grateful to the credibility of the central BJP leaders.
Q: Will AFSPA be a big issue before the election ?
A: It (AFSPA) will not be a big issue because everyone knows that we are facing this since 1950 and people understand about this issue as now, the Army is also not doing excessive action, or meting out inhumane treatment to the people taking advantage of the AFSPA. The Army and other security personnel are trying to safeguard the security of the nation.
You know the hostile situation in Myanmar. Considering all aspects, immediately we cannot withdraw the AFSPA. We are trying to lift the AFSPA and we are requesting the Centre in this regard and we — also as responsible people, are trying to create a conducive atmosphere so that the Centre would not extend it further in near future.
Q: Would the militant outfits play any role in the election process?
A: In the valley area of the state, there are 40 seats and there would be no role of militancy and free and fair elections would be there. In certain parts of the hills where the suspension of operations with the militants exists in the Kuki and Naga tribal inhabited areas, this time, the Union Home Ministry has strongly instructed the (pro-talk) militant outfits to confine their cadres inside their camps and not to involve in any kind of political activities.
So, I think with the increased security strength, free and fair elections would be there in all over the bordering and hilly regions.
Q: As you are confident to retain power, what would be your first step or priority if the BJP government is installed for the second term in Manipur?
A: BJP is always a people centric party. Peace and development which we have achieved in the last 5 years would be continued. Peace, development and ethnic harmony would always be given the priority.
You know, Manipur despite being a small state… we are having around 36-37 tribes and this is a very gigantic task to maintain the ethnic harmony and cohesive relation among all the communities of the tribals.
Empowerment of the youth and unemployment issues would also get priority.
Q: How much the misuse of drugs and drug peddling is affecting the Manipuri society and would it influence the election process?
A: Effect of the drugs in the state is not huge and the number of drug users are not increasing, but drugs produced outside the country and smuggled in from the outside and passing through Manipur, and other states… using the northeastern region as a corridor is a threat.
My primary duty is to stop the smuggling and illegal trade of the drugs and destroy the cultivation of various drugs like Ganja (marijuana) and Poppy.
In the hill areas, there are few unknown militant groups supporting the plantation of Poppy. Our government is always destroying the Poppy cultivation and the police, Assam Rifles and other security forces are active to destroy such illegal cultivation.
At the moment, stopping the smuggling of drugs from outside is a little bit difficult because we are having a 394 km unfenced border with Myanmar. But Union Home Minister Amit Shah has recently sanctioned some 40 km of fencing in the vulnerable areas. Now, the work of fencing is going on and after completion of the border fencing work then almost 70-80 per cent drug smuggling from the outside would be controlled.
I would firmly deal and take stern action to stop the Poppy plantation inside the state and this would be my one of the priority tasks to abolish the poppy plantations.
Q: How do you see the prospect of trade and investment in Manipur in the near future?
A: In the coming decade, the state would move from an ‘Aspirational Manipur’ to a ‘Model Manipur’. Manipur would serve as the ‘Gateway of Trade and Commerce’ to the South East Asian countries.
Q: Women have been playing a very significant role since princely rule in Manipur and they are always vocal and active against all immorality and illegal activities in the state. Would you undertake any special mission for the empowerment of women?
A: This is a good question. Women empowerment is always our priority. Spending around Rs 14 crore, we have already constructed ‘Ima Market’ (all women markets also called ‘Ima Keithal’ or the ‘Mother’s Market’) in all seven hill districts — Churachandpur, Ukhrul, Jiribam, Kangpokpi, Tamenglong, Senapati, and Chandel district.
Through the TRIFED (Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India) and many other schemes, we are giving financial support to the women and around 41,000 women in hilly areas getting benefit through the SHG (Self Help Groups).
Women are working very hard in Manipur and they also have the talent and efficiency and you know most of the weaving sectors are occupied by the women only and with the initiatives of the government, women are getting loans from various financial institutions with very easy terms and conditions.
We have established Women Police Stations and One-Stop Centres in every district where the needs and safety concerns of our women are taken care of.
Though we are doing a lot for the women and we would definitely continue to give more importance to women in future also.
This time, BJP central leaders have fielded three women candidates to fight the assembly elections.
Q: How much challenge the opposition Congress is posing to the BJP before the elections?
A: This time, the Congress is not at all a challenge for us. However, there is a huge number of intending (BJP) candidates, it is becoming a challenge for us… anyway, we would deal with the issue successfully.