For the moment, the BJP-led coalition government in Manipur seems to have weathered the storm that threatened to dismantle its very foundation, and without doubt, with ample help from the BJP’s central command. In the sordid political drama that unfolded before everybody, the challenge from the Opposition Congress ended in a whimper with the tame surrender of the four MLAs of the NPP who had earlier walked out of the government, making the latter’s fall seem imminent. The four, as all saw or read, were first taken away from the state by their national leader and Meghalaya Chief Minister, Conrad Sangma, and BJP storm-trooper and Assam health minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, to New Delhi, and the rest is history. All this is very well, and Manipur as of now seems to be back on square one, but can this be the end of the story? Would all the angst which had led to the trouble in the first place, have been put to rest so completely so quickly. The first of these is the question of the BJP’s own legislators getting restive because there are not enough cabinet berths left for them as loyalty of coalition partners have had to be secured with ministerial positions. This problem is especially acute because the ceiling on cabinet size for the state predetermined by the 10th Schedule is 12 including the Chief Minister, and of these seven are occupied by allies. There is also the long arm of the law which can throw in the spanner to spoil the ruling party’s free run. The manner in which the Speaker, Y. Khemchand, acted more out of whim than rule of law in selectively deciding the fate of seven Congress defectors and of one Trinamool Congress, will probably come to be challenged in the court, unless the Opposition does not have any wind left in its sails after the humiliation of defeat in the Rajya Sabha election as well as in its attempt to wrest power from the BJP. Again, although a no confidence motion against the government did not materialise this time, the Assembly will have to be convened for its summer session, probably sometime in August. The trouble that the ministry witnessed this time, can again resurface then, if the mess within the ruling party and the Assembly is not swept clean by then.
Beyond the instability in Manipur caused by democracy’s number game, there are other dangers. Democracy, as Fareed Zakaria writes in his influential book, “Future of Freedom”, can make meaning only if it is predicated by an internalised culture of liberalism. At its crux, this liberalism means an acknowledgment and respect for a sense of innate rectitude which all civilised societies acquire, most pronouncedly manifesting in the treatment of rule of law as sacrosanct and above all individuals and institutions of society. This cannot have been better illustrated than in the famous verbal duel in Robert Bolt’s play, “A Man For All Seasons”, between Thomas More and his young assistant William Roper on what an offence against the law is. When More had an opportunity to arrest a known tormentor spying on him, Roper asks him to do so immediately. More refuses saying the man has broken no law. To which Roper in great agitation and bewilderment reminds More that the man has broken God’s law. More’s retort was classic: “Let God arrest him then,” he tells Roper. This arguably is the most succinct definition of the esteem with which a liberal democracy is expected to hold the idea of rule of law. There probably also is no better definition of secularism – defined as separation religion from state – than this. By contrast, in an illiberal society, Zakaria notes, democracy would end up not only reduced to a farce but even become dangerous. He goes to the extent of saying liberal institutions such as liberal education, courts, free media etc, can flourish even without democracy, such as in Singapore, but democracy without liberalism can tear nations apart as it happened in the former Yugoslavia.
It is anybody’s guess which of these scenarios Manipur would fit in. This is a state where the idea of rule of law has been almost completely done to death at the highest institution of democracy. This is a state which systematically and brazenly reduced the 10th Schedule to a convenient tool in the hands of the party in power, making a law which is meant to discourage political disloyalty and defection, into an instrument to either coerce or encourage legislators to defect as per the convenience of those in power. As the whole state saw, after ignoring the provisions of this legislations for three and half years, even when the court of law directed for its application, it was suddenly and selectively applied to seven Congress defectors in a manner those in power profited. Again, the extent to which the law has been flattened was also there for all to see when more Congress MLAs were being prepared for defection by Trojan Horses within the party, even as a floor test of the strength of the BJP government became imminent because of the withdrawal of support by the NPP and the resignation of three BJP legislators. Under normal circumstance, divided loyalties within a political party in the choice of their leader, or support for a policy, would have been treated as internal matter to be settled by the party’s own conflict resolution mechanism. But when MLAs of any particular political party decide not to support their own party and opt to ally with another, this is no longer an internal matter, and the 10th Schedule is precisely a law to deal and penalise such acts of political disloyalty. But in Manipur today, this law has been allowed to be completely and atrociously refashioned to promote only the interest of those in power. There cannot be any doubt about it that in retrospect, what we are witnessing in the state today, will go down as one of the darkest chapters in the history of democracy in the state.
Quite disturbingly there was another equally disconcerting parallel development while the threat to the BJP government was at its peak. On the eve of the Rajya Sabha election, when the Opposition was pushing for a floor test, the Central Bureau of Investigation, CBI, suddenly made an appearance in Imphal. First a long dormant case, that of police firing and killing of Major Shimareingam Shaiza who was accompanying the then Nagaland Speaker Thenucho Chakesang in a car with two armed bodyguards, was revied and suddenly hit the headlines. It may be recalled, the leader of the NPP legislature party, Y. Joykumar was a DGP when counterinsurgency operations in the state got extremely violent and murderous. By his position during the period alone, he must certainly be implicated in many of these cases, therefore it is possible that at the back of his mind he felt the CBI was sending him a message that he can become extremely vulnerable. Did this influence him and his party, directly or indirectly, in their decision to return to the ruling fold upon their return from Delhi? The very next day, another headline informed the public that the CBI summoned the leader of the Opposition, former Congress chief minster Okram Ibobi, who was leading the charge against the BJP government, for questioning in a fund misappropriation case. True these are important cases which deserved to be thoroughly investigated and disposed, and it is also possible the sudden revival of these cases were just coincidences. However the preciseness of their timings and the nature of thier revival, cannot but make people suspicious. Also take note that most of those who have tended to defect to the ruling party in the past few years are legislators implicated in criminal cases. Were they coerced or assured leniency from the glare of the state’s retributive machineries if they switched loyalty to the ruling party? If these suspicions are indeed true, then this misuse of the instruments of the state to advance the interest of the ruling party, would be another nail in the coffin of democracy in the state, for then it would mean the state or its laws are no longer above politics. This loss of esteem of the rule of law in public eye, in the end will certainly prove to be a great detriment to all efforts to bring peace in this strife torn state.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author