Manipur is in the midst of another avoidable leadership crisis. Despite the fact the BJP won a clear though thin majority of 32 in a house of 60, as has become wont in Manipur politics, a leadership crisis has erupted within the BJP from the day the results were declared. Two of the party’s foremost stalwarts, incumbent chief minister and now caretaker chief minsiter Nongthombam Biren and his senior cabinet colleague Thongam Bishwajit are now vying for the state’s top job, but as it now seems, it cannot still be entirely ruled out that as a compromise candidate, a third party may end up winning the post by default, depending on what the BJP central command sees fit. Even as late as March 19, the day this article was written and uploaded, nothing seems definite who would be anointed as the next chief minister, although there are plenty of speculations on how one other of the two has earned the pleasure of the BJP high command. Regardless of which of the two, or a third compromise candidate emerges the victor in this unseemly contest, one thing would have become more than certain – at least as far as Manipur is concerned, de facto it is no longer a federal state, though de jure it still is on paper. From all appearance, the state no longer has the powers to make decisions autonomous of New Delhi even within to the limits the Constitution of India guarantees. The question which should trouble every conscientious observer should be, has the servile nature of state leaders reverted the State back to Union Territory status or else placed in a variant of a permanent President’s Rule with the elected State government in a new version of perpetual suspended animation, briefed only to execute programmes that New Delhi formulates, with no longer any agency to visualise its own future course of development as it autonomously thinks would best suit the State.
The normal and healthy democratic practice should have been to leave the choice of the legislative party leader for the elected legislators of the party to select, either by unanimous choice if an overwhelming majority shows faith in only one, or else by vote if there are more than one contender. This norm, as we are painfully witnessing, has been usurped and now even this important attribute of democracy has been surrendered and left to the discretion of the BJP high command, who incidentally enjoy no direct mandate of the electorate of Manipur. The message is clear. Non-elected party leaders in New Delhi and elsewhere have more power than leaders of the State elected by the people of the State even in matters exclusively concerning the State. Nothing can be more demeaning than this for those in politics in the state, but it has been long since dignity and pride in the self, ceased to matter in Manipur’s brand of politics of sycophancy.
What has become stark is a patron-client relationship between leaders at the Centre and those in the State, at both the levels of the BJP as a political party, and at the larger government level of the Union and the State governments. The leadership crisis in Manipur that we are currently witnessing is in many ways a direct fallout of the continued reinforcement of this equation. The very idea of a state leader is now being redefined and circumscribed to become somewhat similar to the role bureaucrats play in the governance process, meant only to implement pre-fabricated programmes effectively but not visualise and chart out the State’s routes to the future autonomously. This would be a role somewhat similar to what French philosopher Michel Foucault famously called “governmentality” (as opposed to government), which no doubt is a vital part of the governance process, for this is what provides all the nuts and bolts of everyday administration. Without this rather invisible machine in the background, the entire governance process anywhere would come to a halt. The other interesting attribute of “governmentality” is, the nuts and bolts which hold this machine together have no identity of their own, and can be easily replaced without detriment to the larger machine. In fact, it may even be desirable for them to be replaced periodically to prevent snags resulting for wear and tear, or anti-incumbency in electoral language. The contention I am making is, since State leaders are now reduced to merely the nuts and bolts of a unique “governmentality” structure, they have come to be seen as dispensable replaceable without detriment to the efficacy of the larger governance structure. Not only are others outside the structure seeing it this way, but those within the structure themselves have come to see each other as possessing no unique quality to deserve the top position within the structure more than any among them. This is how I would characterise the ongoing struggle for the chief ministership in Manipur.
But is the enterprise of a government confined strictly to “governmentality”. In very mediocre societies, there would probably be little beyond this that the people expect of their leaders, for this is enough to keep the governance process running smoothly, except in the times of extreme crisis, such as during a war or emergencies such as COVID, when true leaders are called upon to step out of the comfort confines of “governmentality” to fight and lead the society out of the threats they come to confront. But in more progressive societies, where the everyday fruits of “governmentality” can be taken for granted, even in normal times people would be looking for a leadership who can go beyond the wall of “governmentality”, therefore capable of pursuing grander visions of the future than the present. Leaders who emerge in this space will no longer be akin to replaceable nuts and bolts, but unique in their abilities and stances. There will no doubt still be competition among rivals with unique capabilities who enter this space, but the winners here will be decided by a measure of calibre and vision, not by winning favours of remote central high commands. For the moment, Manipur can only hope that such a strata of leadership of calibre will emerge – the sooner the better.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author