One of the most pressing questions in the present times has to do with the source of legitimacy of state power, a question we had begun grappling with in the FPSJ editorial of last week. What exactly is state power, who is entitled to it, and what makes somebody qualify to be in such a position of power? In the Cold War era, as all of us older than 40 have seen unfold, and younger followers of international politics would have also read and assessed, the contest between the two predominant blocs of geopolitics, namely the Western Democracy Bloc and the Eastern Communist Bloc, was for defining this legitimacy in their own distinctive ways. In the 1990s, the Eastern Bloc centred around the former USSR crumbled. An unprecedented euphoria in the Western world followed that momentous turn of event. Academic Francis Fukuyama even called it the end of history in his celebrated book by the same name. The assumption then was, the pinnacle of the evolution of the state was reached presumably proving that the free market Capitalist economy had no other alternative, therefore beyond challenge.
Three decades down the line, as has always happened in any change big or small throughout history, the euphoria of this perceived victory is fading. As maverick economist and former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, put it, what the fall of the Eastern Bloc showed was the failure of Communism and not the success of Capitalism and that today, Capitalism may have begun devouring Democracy. This could also be read to mean, Democracy, Capitalism and Communism, though each has a bearing on the other, are not the same and therefore can be autonomous of each other – a thought which goes against the successfully advocated imagined synonymity of Capitalism and Democracy. What is being discovered now is, Capitalism is not necessarily complementary to Democracy. The evidence is the extreme income disparity in the Capitalist world, where the top 10 percent have come to own 70 percent of the world’s wealth, while millions continue to sink into impoverishment. In India too, the top 10 percent of the population holds 77 percent of the total national wealth. According to an Oxfam study, 73 percent of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest one percent, while 67 million Indians who comprise the poorest half of the population saw only a one percent increase in their wealth.
The COVID crisis has also complicated this matter of legitimacy of political systems even further. If in the ultimate analysis, the success of a nation, therefore political system, is to be measured in terms of the nation’s ability protect its citizens from dangers, and it is clear now which countries have performed the best and worst on this front. How is it that most of the major Capitalist countries, where the political leadership is decided periodically by the people directly, fared so badly. Many Asian countries have on the other hand been quite successful in containing the ravages of the disease. Of particular interest is China where the pandemic first broke out, and where the leadership is determined not directly by the people, but indirectly by a single political party, the Chinese Communist Party, which may not be a copy of the old “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” of the Marxist model, but definitely based on it.
Marx and Angels provided the theoretical basis for such a rule, but in practice, we have also seen the variations in its interpretation depending on the context the theory was applied. Hence, Lenin in Russia who has had to lead a mix of peasantry and industrial workers, Gramsci in northern Italy whose subjects were more educated and affluent and Mao in China where the peasantry struggled with the bigotry of an imperial past and an emerging bourgeoisie, saw the role and power of the Communist Party differently. Modern China is still a one-party rule, but no points for guessing, it is far from the party that Mao conceived for the country. While the jury is still out on the relative efficacy of the different political systems, a trial made more immediate by the COVID crisis, intriguing question this article opened with, remains. Where do these political systems draw their legitimacy to confront their people? In a democracy, the link between the people and leaders is obvious, for the former elect the latter. But what makes leaders in a Communist system legitimate before their people. It is easy to claim these leaders are not legitimate at all in the eyes of their public, but the story is far more complicated.
Regimes always not only claim legitimacy, but also uses all means within their powers to have the people accept this as a given condition. As for instance, during feudal days, rulers came up with the idea of the sanctity of bloodline, or “blue bloodedness” of royals, to ensure the leadership mantle remained hereditary. What about different modern regimes? Where do they draw their legitimacy? To make the question more immediate, what are the claims to legitimacy of leaders in the two not so friendly neighbours – India and China?
A two-part, op-ed articles, published on June 7 and June 12, 2006, in The Telegraph, by one of India’s respected academic and political thinker, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, written after a India-China cooperation summit at the time in Beijing, forwarded some very absorbing argument on the sources of legitimacy for different forms of governments. These articles again stand out more than ever now. The fact is, about the time of the crumbling of the Socialist Bloc, the differences in economic advances between the two countries were not so stark. Today they are worlds apart. A comparison between the two countries then, in this regard, is loaded with lessons. These lessons can very well be for Manipur too and hence this invitation for further reflection.
One of Mehta’s the chief contentions is, being a democracy, India puts a premium on representation. There is beauty in this but it also nonetheless dilutes the question of accountability. It ensures participation of all different sections of the people in the governance process but this itself becomes the primary end justice, leaving the question of performance, the other vital functions of any government, as secondary. Consider this. The official answer to any charge that the Northeast occupies only a peripheral space in the Indian national consciousness and that this is evidence of institutional neglect, is that every one of the Northeastern states is represented in all the institutions of the Indian state, administrative as well as legislative, hence the question of neglect, or injustice, does not arise. The fact that the Northeast still remaining backward is in this way is diluted, and with it the remedial measures too. It is as if representation is all there is about justice. Often, the idea of representation as justice does appear like shifting the blame for failure and non-performance to the victims. In recent times, even the very idea of representation is becoming problematic. Leaders of all hues, not just the officially elected one, cite “people”, or “miyam” in vernacular, on whose behalf they supposedly work, as justifications for their actions. As to how they are sure of the mind of the “people” or “miyam” is, or who exactly belong to these broad and nebulous categories, are never explained.
Mehta notes, such questions are what makes the allusion to China relevant. In China, according to his insightful observations, the challenges of legitimacy before the government are quite different. It leaders are nominated hence the only way they can win this legitimacy is through performance and accountability. Since they are nominated, they can also be removed by the appointing authority, unlike the elected leaders in India who often shield themselves behind the claim of enjoying the “people’s mandate”. Much like in a bureaucracy, leaders in such a system, join at the bottom of the political hierarchy and rise to the top according to their performances. The system minimises or eliminates the possibility of lateral entries at the top leadership ranks. The nature of motivation and drive of leaders in such a system are expectedly radically different. This onerous pressure to perform has even led China in recent times to treat Capitalism and Communism not as ideologies, but as instruments of development, to be administered in measured doses as per the developmental needs of the society.
In our situation, this quest for legitimacy would be somewhat similar to that of a President’s Rule scenario would be. Whenever a constitutional crisis arise in a state, a nominated Governor and his nominated council is mandated by the Constitution to run the state’s civil administration. In such a situation, as in places like China, governor too must have to seek his or her legitimacy through performance and accountability alone, for she does not have the shield of “people’s mandate” or more colloquially “miyamgi apamba”.
The Chinese system too has its flaws. As for instance, their leaders are first answerable to their party and not directly to the people. We saw how this hierarchical leadership work most recently when the Novel Coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan city of China’s Hubei province, and the tragedy whistle blower Dr. Li Wenliang, has had to go through. The doctor tried to raise an alarm on December 30, 2019, but the Hubei Provincial authorities suppressed his voice with a stern warning, and his case was appropriately addressed only when Beijing intervened. Imagine if this had happened in Manipur. The media and civil society organisations of all hues would have been the first to come to the forefront raising he decibel of protest, and in all likelihood would have prompted the state authorities to swing into action without having to wait for direction from the Centre. But, given the political culture now which celebrates servility to “high command”, for all the wrong reasons, Manipur politics is beginning to resemble the one party system of China. We can only suggest that rather than this attribute, the pollical class should also imbibe the other culture of the one party system which draws legitimacy from performance and accountability as well.
All in all, democracy probably remains the best political system, not for its own merits alone, but because there are no better alternatives. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst system if not for the others.” But let nobody be left with the illusion that Capitalism alone guarantees democracy.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author