The fortnight since election results were declared for five State Assemblies has been naturally fraught with activity in India. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rode the wave of victory and got busy with its advisory duties and chief minister nominations, the parties that lost this round were left to recuperate. The Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will have to recalibrate their positions as major parties who have attempted to hold on to their stakes in New Delhi and might have set their sights on the 2019 general election. The Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh are similarly left brooding after their lackluster performance in such a key State Assembly election. However, while these parties contemplate the next move, a significant actor in the political spectrum of India has decided to leave politics altogether after her loss.
Irom Chanu Sharmila, the “Iron Lady of Manipur” as she is known, ended her 16-year-long hunger strike earlier in 2016 in order to contest the election in Manipur. Known and revered for her strong and unwavering activism against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Manipur, she decided to directly enter the polls as part of the Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA). While this was a bold move by itself, she went a step further by deciding to contest outside the comfort zone. She took on the incumbent chief minister in his home constituency and engaged in a head-on battle with existing political powers. She faced a devastating loss, securing merely 90 votes. Okram Ibobi Singh went on to win that constituency with more than 18,000 votes.
In a country where political leaders attempt to reach the status of icons in order to solidify their presence in politics, Sharmila certainly was an icon in her own right. Her larger-than-life presence, however, was not about leadership and charisma as much as it was about resilience against the larger structures of India and the army’s human rights violations. But Sharmila’s loss, while disappointing for those expecting a moral recognition of her struggle, nevertheless is indicative of important lessons in politics.
In all honesty, even though the margin was jarring and relatively unexpected and insignificant options fared better than she did, a win was never an expected outcome for her. The three candidates fielded by PRJA stood out in terms of the issues they espoused – transparency and accountability, and the foregrounding of human rights and women’s rights issues. However, in a state traditionally dominated by questions of ethnic policy during elections, the freshness of their campaign could not and did not match the practiced posturing of the veteran politicians. This, coupled with the unfair resentment that some supporters of Sharmila held against her for breaking her fast, led to a diminished support base.
Sharmila has said that she faced an electorate “hypnotized by money and muscle power” and after her defeat went on a retreat to the state of Kerala. She has declared the end of her own political career, but has hopes for the PRJA. In the meanwhile, she also hopes to forge a platform of global solidarity against AFSPA. She does not intend to back out of the political spectrum, even as she withdraws from electoral politics.
Sharmila’s defeat signals important lessons. It is indicative of the fact that while a cult status can go a long way in Indian politics, not all larger-than-life figures can really afford to bank upon this alone. Electoral politics continues to be a game where strategy and campaigns matter and the fact that an individual has a strong moral argument at their side is inadequate for victory. Certainly one must not behave as though Sharmila had a de facto right to win, but it is important at this moment to dig deeper into her loss. Did the same individuals who in theory supported her years of activism not approve of her turn to politics or did they not approve of the way she conducted her campaign? Did the electorate not vote for Sharmila the person or what she stood for? And if the electorate supported what she stood for – what really are the ways to bring those issues to the forefront of electoral politics?