Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Liberal rule based order is more crucial for democracy than even periodic elections.

Manipur Needs to Recall the Difference Between Form and Substance of Democracy

Discussions on the subject democracy can never be exhaustive, as indeed all other human endeavours. There are so many intriguing questions that discussions on democracy have thrown up, and without doubt will continue to throw up. For one, at its most fundamental level, what is democracy? Is it just a system of rule by leaders periodically elected by a nation’s citizens, or is it also a value defined by certain moral standards? There can be no argument that a periodic election to ensure democracy’s leaders do not take the mandate of the people for granted is important, but the disturbing question that arises far too often for comfort is, can there be a guarantee the majority’s choice is always morally sound? Many of the monstrous dictators, Adolf Hitler for instance, came to power riding on majority mandates of their people. The world has seen this phenomenon of people preferring autocrats and giving them their mandate to rule repeated over and again through history.

In writing of the rise of far-right ethno-nationalists in the former Yugoslavia, and the resultant ethnic cleansing wars that fragmented the nation into several new nations, Fareed Zakaria summarises the problem rhetorically in his Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracies at Home and Abroad thus: – what if the majority begin to want blood? Would such a regime still qualify to be a democracy despite it having the mandate of its people. Zakaria also explores the opposite consideration. What if an autocrat were to also be a strict adherent of constitutional ruled based order, and he had in mind very successful countries like Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, or Honk Kong and South Korea before they transitioned to democracy.

Hong Kong’s case was particularly illustrative. Till 1997, the city state was a colony of Britain, therefore by definition not a democracy. No sooner the British left, Hong Kong had no problem whatsoever switching to a democratic form of government, prompting Zakaria to presume what is more fundamental is the internalisation of a liberal constitutional rule-based order amongst its people, and once this is guaranteed, adapting to electoral democracy becomes just a matter of formality. In other words, an internalisation and acceptance of liberal and value based order is far more fundamental than democracy the system. The latter can be easily adopted if the former is guaranteed, but not so the other way around. In a place where constitutional rule-based order has not come to be seen as sacrosanct, and rights and entitlements are seen from the lens of ethnicity and religion, introducing electoral democracy can actually be disastrous, for elections and vote bank politics, can accentuate differences and divide populations dangerously, Zakaria noted and this is becoming prophetic in many ways in today’s world which is witnessing a phenomenal rise in right wing politics.

Hence, liberal education which rises above religion and ethnicity, liberal scientific judicial beliefs, and an administration based on liberal humanistic principles therefore must predicate any successful democracy. This thought should serve as a caution for all who swear by democracy and believe democracy’s mandate sanctifies all victorious at an election. This is regardless of the two general acknowledged forms of democracy – the first past the post system or else the proportional representation – and which of these reflect the mandate of the people more faithfully. The fundamental question of whether democracy ends with deciding majority verdict, or it must also have value beyond merely the popular mandate, will remain contentious.

This brief foray into a problematic aspect of the idea of democracy, is meant only to flag a caution that Manipur should be careful in assessing its own democracy. Manipur must remember that merely the compulsion of periodic elections to elect leaders guarantees democracy only in form but not necessarily in substance. It must also be remembered that when the premium is placed on form alone, those seeking power will mutate the ways to achieve this form and the first casualty is the manner elections are sought to be won. True to this prediction, today elections in Manipur have become a carnival where votes are won by money and muscle.

This being so, it is hard to think of anybody, especially in the valley, where a candidate in the recent election who spent within the legal limit of Rs. 28 lakhs that Election Commission of India set for small states like Manipur actually won. Informed estimates put this expenditure anywhere between Rs. 15 to Rs. 30 crores by most winning candidates, and that many potential winners could not make the mark because they could not beat their rivals in the spending competition. Consequent upon this emergent electoral culture, the profile of leadership in the state has changed unrecognizably. When it should be visionaries and intellectual elites who should be leading, now we have people with opulent wealth far exceeding their known sources of income, looking to occupy the state’s seats of power. Politics today is also less about a commitment to the future of the state, and more transactional, defined by cost-benefit equations, where politicians enter politics for the returns in terms of power and more money. The rush for cabinet portfolios which are considered the most lucrative is just one manifestation of this.

Governance as a teamwork, first of the ruling party lead by the cabinet, which itself is captained by the chief minister, is now a lame duck. It is only imaginable that the teamwork on the larger canvas, forged by the ruling and opposition through policy debates and adjustments accordingly, is also dead and forgotten. Even in the span of the few decades since Manipur became a full-fledged state in 1972, this gradual change in the understanding of political leadership is visible. Once upon a time, it was school and college teachers who were held in great public esteem, and were chosen by the public to lead them. This was also a time when politics in the state remained closest to being a chosen vocation and mission. Then entered retired bureaucrats who made money to spare during their tenures as government servants. And now even they have been pushed aside by government contractors and businessmen with undeclared or partially declared fortunes they made mostly in collaborative loots of government exchequer, which incidentally has become normalised and therefore acceptable in the eyes of the public in Manipur. This emergent new order has also created vested interests at all levels, and therefore can never be easy to reset the order. Even if a public willing to see this happen comes about, it would probably take the turn of a generation or two before things are track again.

But while the people work towards such a happy turn of events, there must also be effort to get the best out of what has already been set rolling while it lasts. It is perfectly legitimate for politicians to look for ways to strengthen the foundation of their own political careers, but for those who are already at the top, especially the person holding the top job, that of chief ministership to b precise, the approach ought to be a little different. There is much to learn from the American system. The norm in this democracy of not allowing a president more than two terms makes a lot of sense. Under this circumstance, a US President fights to establish his complete sway over his or her domain, pushing policies etc., in the first term. But if the President gets a second terms, which normally is the case, although there have been exceptions, the natural tendency has been for such a President, knowing this will be his last term, treat the term as his legacy years, setting aside party politics to some extent and trying to see ways of leaving his own legacy as a leader who has made some unique contribution to the country and its people. It may also be noted here that the government’s term in the US is shorter and leaders have to seek fresh mandate of the people every four years, unlike in India where this mandate is renewed every five years.

In India, unlike in the US, the person leading a government can continue to do so indefinitely provided his party continues to win in the election, the idea of legacy years hence is diluted. But, although there is no law to limit the terms of the leader of a government, a leader can voluntarily see a second term as his or her legacy years, therefore rise above party politics, and think of building her own legacy as a leader who has contributed to shaping a brighter future of her people. Democracy, then would to some extent cease to be about perpetual electoral calculations. It would also be much more about nurturing values of humanity. Not the least, it would also be a way of not dampening the spirit of younger generations of leaders in aspiring for the top job.

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