Sunday, January 8, 2012

Manipur and the Greatest Festival of Democracy

When was the last time you voted with Manipur in your mind? For that matter, when was the last time you stood as a candidate with Manipur in your mind? These two questions are central in answering or deciding the destiny of Manipur, given that 20 days from today, the dance of democracy that has already gathered momentum in the State with “social workers” taking the lead roles shall be reaching its climax. Precedents indicate that there aren’t going to be any changes. However, the format and texture of the dance seems to have undergone significant modifications.

Manipuris are great patriots. This is an undeniable fact. A small gathering in a meadow, say for worship or public meeting is incomplete without loud blaring of music smacked with patriotic notes. But when it comes down to issues affecting the public, the private overshadows the Rousseau-ic notion of common good. Issue that challenges the patriotic sentiment can “gather” the people together. The world has witnessed the fury of the Manipuris when there was an uprising with regard to the “prospective” disintegration of Manipur’s territorial integrity on account of a cease-fire understanding reached between the Government of India and NSCN-IM. But issues that encroach upon livelihood in terms of scarcity of petroleum products, high prices of essential commodities, under table practices of officials in Government offices, non-availability of drinking water, etc. hardly act as catalyst to “gather” the people together for a political act. Take for instance, even after months long economic blockade has been lifted, we still witness serpent like ques in front of the petrol pumps. Pick up any constituency, there will be many that do not get drinking water. For instance, Kongpal Chanam Leikai, the home polling station of the sitting MLA of Kshetrigao Kendra, is devoid of tap water. People in this constituency either buy drinking water or depend upon the polluted Kongba River. This is in spite the fact that the locality is hardly a kilometre away from the Porompat Water Supply Station. Yet, people fail to demand their rightful rights. Examples aside, such a phenomenon (patriotism versus ignoring livelihood issue) reveals the basic contradiction inherent in the national character of the Manipuris.

Let’s examine the facts of electoral democracy. The institution as well as the practice stands to enhance governance, which is a two-way process. If we take the model of Robert Dahl, political system is like any other system that survives on the process of input (feedback) and output conceptual linkages. People provide the input or the needs. Political parties help in mobilizing and collecting the needs of the people and feeds to the Government. Government analyses and takes decisions based on the inputs or feedbacks. The Government that does not strike a chord with the needs of the people does not stand a chance to return to power. Such norms and procedures are conspicuously absent in Manipur.

Electoral democracy does not promise to safeguard one’s patriotism. In fact, patriotic feelings are harnessed and exploited (as a means) to achieve the end of a particular political party. And precisely, political parties have correctly read the minds of the Manipuris (the basic contradiction stated above) and have taken the people for rides period after period, dances after dances. What else can explain the insertion of patriotic issues such as “save the territorial integrity of Manipur” or “removal of AFSPA” in each and every electoral manifestoes of political parties, big or small. This is indicative of harnessing and exploiting the patriotic sentiments. Likewise, the inclusion of each and every wishes of the people pertaining to livelihood issues is indicative of “projecting” a people-friendly image. If you have read an election manifesto of a political party in Manipur, you have read the rest. There are no differences. It implies that elections in Manipur are not fought on issues or issue-based. Patriotism or livelihood issues, taken together, once the election is over and the winning parties comes to power, the manifestoes remain empty words. None are fulfilled or converted into actions.

Such a predicament suggests few insights:

  • Manipuris are noble savages in the sense that they are ever ready patriots who would defend their land or fight to protect their precious lives. This is a character or state of mind that endorses Jacques Rousseau’s idea of noble savage. Liberty and freedom are inherent catch words in such a proposal.
  • Manipuris are noble savages in the sense that they are ever ready to ignore issues that pose a challenge to their livelihood. This is as good as getting a satisfaction from the mere state of existing. Existence? Animals exist, plants exist, stones exist, philosophically speaking, every living and non-living things exist. But human beings attempt to move a degree higher than existence and lead a meaningful life. This is known as living. Coming back to our point, this is a contradiction to Jacques Rousseau’s idea of noble savage, precisely because this state of mind is deprived of the notion of freedom; notably freedom from hunger and wants.
  • The two contradictions inherent in the national character of the Manipuris, have given way to a skewed understanding of common good, the abstraction of all the individual wills.
  • This bring us to the conclusion that Manipur is not yet ready for liberal democracy, given that certain fundamental contradictions have not been resolved by the Indian State.

In the overwhelming confusion that prevails in Manipur, what has indeed changed is the format of dance of democracy. But this is not an alarming paradox, given that militairization has percolated in every sphere of life and nooks and corner of the State. Manipur with all its defects and deformations related with democracy, did not resort to use of fire-arms to win elections. A new era has dawned. We hear about western like duel situations of gun fights between intending candidates. The Wangkhei Constituency has been converted into Western-like cow boy movies and is an obvious constituency. Thoubal and other constituencies do not lack far behind. This is the only new ingredient that has liven up our lives. As the election draws nearer, such incidences could multiply.

Already, grand feasts have become a common sight in every locality in commemoration of the greatest festival called elections gifted by Indian democracy. Nationalist and patriotic fervours have reached the highest pitch. Sweet sounding but empty promises are sweeping across the State. Officially, INR 800,000 is the upper ceiling of expenditure each candidate can make in this months long festival of democracy but the reaility is otherwise. Several millions of rupees have been already spent by most of the candidates even though the election is still 20 days away. This time, the election schedule is really great, thanks to the Election Commission of India. After months of economic blockade which not only chocked the National Highways but also the throats of each and every citizen of Manipur, this festival of democracy has heralded a time for merry-making at the cost of candidates. The festival of election is also a grand fair where majority of the voters have been wittingly or unwittingly offering their right to vote for sale. Apart from outright exchange of voting rights with money usually done on the day of voting, there is a subtle and often concealed form of offering and buying voting rights. Candidates started luring voters months back by organising grand feasts, doling out financial assistance to Self Help Groups, extending monetary assistance to families solemnising nuptial ceremonies, death or birth ceremonies etc, etc. By partaking in such grand feasts and accepting monetary assistance from the candidates, people wittingly or unwittingly sell out or surrender their voting rights. Once they partook in the grand feasts and accepted the monetary assistance offered by candidates, people feel they are indebted and morally bound to cast their votes in favour of the particular candidates. This is another trait of the voters of Manipur which cannot be overlooked. This particular trait is quite domineering in the sense that it often subdued or negated other senses like prudence, sagacity, analytical capacity and one’s own assessment of the contending candidates. Political parties and their ideologies have little to do with the electioneering pattern of Manipur. This can be explained by the fact that people hardly see any difference in the ideologies and principles of political parties, and the more bitter truth is, even if there are certain ideological differences, no politician excepting one or two is ever committed to his or her own party. People vote because either they are indebted or they are coaxed or because they do not want to stay away from this great festival of democracy which comes only once in five years. Election manifestoes are for some scholars and college teachers only, and they are dead documents once the election is over. Over the years, people have learned to delink good governance, public welfare and growth from elections. People have elected different sets of politicians in the last 40 years or so, and all these politicians did was betray people’s trust. We wonder if people are expecting anything of common good out of the elections. Nonetheless, election per se is great. Let’s enjoy it.

This article was published in The Sangai Express on Sunday, January 8, 2012

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