Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, a parallel crisis of democracy is unfolding in Manipur — one which also reflects on the state of Indian democracy in general, where the mandate of the people decided at periodic elections is increasingly being allowed to be twisted by turncoat-elected representatives to serve the end of their unique and grotesque power game. So endemic had defection become, that a law — the 10th Schedule — was introduced in 1985 by the 52nd amendment of the Constitution, but when the loopholes in the law were being exploited to make it irrelevant, it was toughened in 2003 by the 91st amendment of the Constitution. That a country’s leaders have to be restrained thus is itself a disgrace, but in recent times, it is no longer a question of dodging the law, but of overturning the very idea of the rule of law by those in power. The Manipur cases illustrate this very well.
In the March 2017 Assembly election, Manipur saw a hung verdict, with the Indian National Congress emerging as the single largest party with 28 seats in the 60-member House. The Bharatiya Janata Party was second, with 21. For inadequately unexplained reasons, the State Governor, Najma Heptulla, decided the more stable post-poll alliance would be the one the BJP led, though the party needed the support of at least 10 non-BJP MLAs to be in a majority position, rather than the Congress which needed just three. The BJP did manage to forge an alliance that exceeded the majority mark, but at a cost which it is discovering is too dear only now. The ceiling on the Manipur cabinet set by the 10th Schedule is 12 including the Chief Minister. Of the remaining 11, seven had to be given away to the allies to secure their loyalty, (four to National People’s Party (NPP) and one each to the Naga People’s Front, the Lok Janshakti Party and the first Congress MLA to defect to the BJP), leaving only three cabinet berths for the BJP’s own legislators besides the Chief Minister. Luckily for the BJP, most of its veterans did not win the last election, and a great number of those who did were first timers, whose demands were not always seriously for ministerial berths.
Nearly three-and-a-half years down the line, after the initial euphoria of being part of a ruling formation has long died down, many BJP MLAs are now obviously concerned with the reduced prospect of re-election from their constituencies if they went to the polls as mere camp followers. Hence, the internal friction within the ruling party has been visible for the past few months. The tipping point was reached on June 17, when three of their MLAs decided to quit the party and Assembly membership to align with the Congress. The crisis now has the potential of spiralling out of control and more could join the deserters in the days ahead; but given the fact that the adjudication function of the law has been totally smothered, and instead its provisions are now being used with impunity to promote partisan politics, nothing can be said for certain. The resultant loss of esteem for the law in the eyes of the public is predicted to have very long term and grave social consequences in this sensitive, insurgency-torn border State.
Another development after the BJP assumed power was that seven more Congress MLAs defected to the ruling side, bringing up the total number of Congress defectors to eight. They were also obviously hoping for some official position to share the spoils of power, but nothing has been forthcoming for them. Hence, other than the first defector who was absorbed as a cabinet minister, the latter seven continued to sit in the Opposition benches but voted all along with the ruling. Petitions for the disqualification of the eight were left unheeded by the Speaker for more than three years, but on the intervention of the Supreme Court of India, the first defector was disqualified on March 28 this year. When the seven other defectors remained unpenalised, the Congress moved the Manipur High Court. The High Court took the cue from the earlier Supreme Court ruling to direct the Speaker to dispose of the case at the soonest but after the election to the State’s lone Rajya Sabha seat that was scheduled yesterday. Till this was done, the High Court placed a ban on the seven MLAs from entering the Assembly
The BJP, however, has more to worry now. It is also beginning to lose its partners. The biggest of these is the NPP, which has four MLAs in the Assembly. The party walked out of the BJP-led alliance and pledged support to the Opposition Congress on June 17. Along with them, one MLA of the Trinamool Congress and an independent MLA also jumped ship and joined the Congress camp. Almost at the same time, in a curious turn of events, four of the seven Congress defectors also decided to return to the Congress camp. If they remained not disqualified and if they were allowed to vote, it had become a foregone conclusion that the BJP would lose the Rajya Sabha seat. But yesterday, in the morning, the Speaker has heard and disposed of the case of the three defectors still in the BJP camp although there is a High Court directive that the hearing should not be before the Rajya Sabha election, and exonerated them so they could vote. However, the names of the other four were missing from the list of voters.
Even if the BJP, with the help of the Speaker’s controversial rulings, wins the Rajya Sabha seat, the trouble for the coalition can hardly be said to be over. One, it is extremely likely that intervention would come from the High Court on the election and selective disposal of the disqualification cases as well as the Speaker’s tribunal overruling the High Court directive. Two, the Opposition is now demanding a no-confidence motion against the government. It remains to be seen where this will lead to, or if those with the reins of power will allow a non-partisan decision of the Assembly. At this moment though, it does seem the law has become what those in power want it to be.
There can be no dispute there is danger in the law being made a subordinate function of power. This cannot have been better explained than in Robert Bolt’s 1960 classic, A Man for All Seasons. When presented with an opportunity to arrest his opponent and tormentor, Thomas More, refused to give a go-ahead, saying the man has not broken any law. When his young assistant, William Roper, challenged him whether he would give the Devil the benefit of the law, he said he would. And when Roper differed to say he would cut every law in England to get at the Devil, More’s famous retort was: “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? …. Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!” The Manipur BJP seems to be wrestling to fight its own original demon now.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author