Nongthombam Biren Singh, the Chief Minister of Manipur, has seen many transitions in life. He started off as a football player, explored a career in journalism, and then swung into politics. Disgruntled with the Congress, he joined the BJP in October 2016 and became the party’s first CM in the hill state. As he completes six months in office this Friday, he tells The Sunday Guardian about his priority areas that include tourism, infrastructure building and greater connectivity for trade and commerce.
Q: Your government is completing six months in office on Friday, 15 September. If you have to outline a few of your government’s major achievements or policy initiatives that are different from your predecessor’s, what would they be?
A: We believe politics is a social work and politicians are here to serve the people, and that makes our approach different from that of the previous Congress government. People wanted change; they wanted a government that was responsive to their needs and aspiration. Fortunately, we filled the disconnect that existed between the people and the government. Our number one priority is creating oneness by fostering harmonious relations between the different communities in the state, be it Nagas, Meitis, Kukis, or anybody else. In Manipur, there was a divide between the people of the hills and those living in the valley, and the previous government only widened it. The government emissaries, including the then Chief Minister, never went to the hills. The state suffered from 165 days of economic blockade and 635 days of standoff, but we were determined to end the chaos. I appreciate the masses, mainly the hills people for helping us in our endeavour to emotionally integrate the state. I travelled extensively. I visited Ukhrul and the reception there was extraordinary. Afterwards, I also visited Senapati, which is the epicentre of protests. My visits helped our government to connect to the people, and restore their faith in the system, an initiative hitherto not tried. To consolidate the trust of the people in the hills, I declared that Cabinet meetings will be held in the hills. I think that is a first-of-its-kind decision in the history of Manipur. I held a Cabinet meeting in Churachandpur, which was well-received by people.
Q. A major achievement that your government can take credit for is the recent surrender of 68 militants belonging to six different terror cadre. What role did the BJP government in the state, and at the Centre, play to expedite the peace process in the last six months?
A: Actually, the peace process was stalled due to the trust deficit between the militants who wanted to come out and join the mainstream, and the previous Congress government. The previous government did not try to send out any message to the militants. That was the main cause, I presume, as to why there was no progress. After coming to power, I tried to give out feelers to the militants that we are fully committed to peace and whatever word the government has given to them, in case they surrender, will be kept. We also reviewed the previous surrender policy and we found there were many lacunae. We amended it, and made it suitable to the present context. This is why we were able to ensure the surrender of the militants. Recently, one of the leaders who surrendered publicly said that they are developing faith in the present government and that the present government is committed to fulfilling the words that it has given.
Q. Exposing the alleged corruption in the Manipur Development Society was one of the BJP’s election promises. Recently, the Imphal police registered an FIR against the former Congress Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, for his alleged role in the financial irregularities in the MDS. How deep rooted was corruption in the 15 years of the Congress regime and how committed your government is to ending it?
A: The Central government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modiji is committed to fighting corruption and we had promised to the people of Manipur that we would root out corruption if voted to power. It is my sole responsibility after becoming the Chief Minister of the state to deliver on that promise. Corruption in the state was deep rooted during the previous government; wherever and whatever we touched, irregularities started tumbling out. After the constitution of the anti-corruption cell, many officers including IPS, MPS, superintendent engineer rank officers have been suspended following SIT investigations. Many more wrongdoers are about to be nabbed soon and that reflects our government’s strong resolve to fight corruption. In the case of the MDS scam, although the FIR has quoted the financial irregularity to be of Rs 185 crore, I am told, and I am suspecting, that once we dig deeper, it will turn out to the tune of Rs 600-700 crore.
Q. NEDA convenor Himanta Biswa Sarma has said that they are working towards achieving a Congress-free Northeast. Elections are due in Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya. What are the BJP’s prospects in these three states?
A: People are realising the misdeeds of the Congress, which neglected the northeastern states completely in the last 30-40 years. Earlier, even when the state leaders from here travelled to New Delhi to meet ministers of the Union government or their representatives, nobody cared for us. But these days, every fortnight, a Union minister is coming down and interacting with the people here. The Central leaders of the BJP and the Union ministers are trying to know the ground reality and are accordingly investing money for the development of the region. People want change and there is marked enthusiasm for the BJP in the Northeast. The good work of the BJP governments in Assam and Manipur has acted as a catalyst and the BJP has definite chances in all three states, particularly in Tripura.
Q. The Northeast shares close affinity in terms of culture, customs and food habits with the ASEAN region. What is your government’s vision or plan to exploit the tremendous potential which the state has?
A: The beauty of Manipur and the Northeast is known to everybody, but exaggerated media reports of some violent incidents in the state wean away tourists. Our government, however, is trying its best to increase the tourist footfall, including from countries like Japan that can ensure tourist influx. Around 70,000 Japanese soldiers had died in battles from March to June 1944 in Imphal and Kohima during World War II. Since the mid 1940s, Japanese people come down in droves to Imphal to offer floral tributes to the dead. But so far land was not allotted to build tourist facilities. Once I became the Chief Minister, I granted land on lease to one Manipur tourism firm, which is collaborating with the Japanese embassy. They are going to construct a war memorial and other facilities, which, we expect, will increase the tourist footfall from Japan to Manipur manifold. In accordance with the PM’s Act East Policy, the state government has created a Manipur State Act East Policy Committee under my chairmanship. We would focus mainly on tourism and infrastructure building and road connectivity. Medical tourism is also our priority, as many people from Myanmar come here for treatment. We are looking forward to establishing one AIIMS like hospital near the border with Myanmar, so that Manipur becomes a medical hub of the region.Besides that, we are working overtime to make the upcoming Sangai festival in November into a grand celebration. We would also be inviting journalists from all the states to come and see our vibrant culture and take these stories to people across India. That too would boost tourism.
Q. Myanmar can work as a corridor to boost trade between India and ASEAN countries.
A: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in Myanmar today (Wednesday, 6 September) and we have also sent a team along with him that aims to ensure that visa-on-arrival becomes a reality for people coming from Myanmar to Manipur. It is important to ensure easy access as that would improve business and commercial activity at the border. I have requested the authorities in the Ministry of External Affairs to approve a visa-on-arrival scheme and I think positive things will come up.
Q. The peace talks between Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland are now on the verge of coming through a “final solution”, some newspapers have reported recently. Could you update us on the progress that has been made with the NSCN(I-M)?
A: Actually the state government is not a part of the talks… It is very clear that the talks between NSCN(IM) and the Central government are for the Nagaland state… That will be within Nagaland…so it cannot bypass or cross any state boundaries… We are requesting the Central government to make it as early as possible because people are suffering because of the extension of these talks. As per the information I have, the Central government will not take any kind of solution that is beyond the framework of the Constitution. I cannot tell you a particular date when would a solution be announced, but we are hopeful there will be an agreement soon.