In spirit, the merger of five of six Janata Dal (United) MLAs in the current Manipur State Legislative Assembly to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party can be described as nothing less than defection. Technically though, the move was a merger, permitted by the 10th Schedule of the constitution as spelled out in para 4 of this schedule, which specifically states that a political party can merge with another party or decide to form another group without attracting disqualification if at least two thirds of the MLAs of that party agree to such a merger. In such a circumstance, if any of the MLAs also chooses to remain with the original party after two thirds of his or her compatriots have merged with another party, he or she too will be allowed to do so again without attracting disqualification. This is why, five of the six JD(U) MLAs will not be candidates for disqualification, and also the single JD(U) MLA who chose not to join the merger move and can retain his seat as a member of his original party. It is curious how similar this politics of defection and merger is between Manipur and another Northeast state, Arunachal Pradesh. Party hopping has become a normalised abnormality in these two states, and besides being able to dodge the Anti-Defection Law with dexterity, they now do not even have to worry about any serious or critical scrutiny of the public. Like them, the public too now think there is nothing wrong with such treacherous manoeuvres and in fact MLAs wishing to shift loyalty to be aligned with any party in power are actually encouraged by many of their supporters. Nothing can be more dangerous than this skewing of moral vision.
As has become customary, what is being demonstrated once again is a clear dichotomy between the letter and the spirit of law in Manipur politics. This is sad and unfortunate for the state. For one, it overturns the notion of natural justice. A particular piece of legislation may be silent on certain matters of justice, but there are unwritten and intuitive understanding of rectitude pertaining to these matters all civilised societies hold and value. This civilisational quality seems to be on the wane in Manipur. The complexity of the idea of jurisprudence coming out of a dialectics between written and unwritten understanding of justice, is what is being ruined beyond recognition in Manipur by our elected leaders, and nobody seems prepared, much less eager, to repair the damage. A comparison with the case of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, should make this contention clearer as everybody in Manipur is familiar with this draconian law. AFSPA is a law no doubt, legislated and given legal sanctity by the Parliament, therefore acting as per its provisions cannot amount to a violation of the law. The question then is, why are the people by and large opposed to it so vehemently. The point is, in AFSPA too, there is the same dichotomy between the letter and spirit of law.
Few have elucidated the prevalence of this dichotomy more succinctly than Devdutt Pattanaik, author of several books on Indian mythology. An analogy he draws to do this analysis is taken from the great Hindu epics of Ramayan and Mahabharat, and is fascinating. In Ram Rajya the age of innocence (Satya Yug), the letter and spirit of the law are not allowed to diverge at any cost. Ram for instance keeps his father’s promise made to his stepmother to exile himself for 14 years in the jungle, although there is no law that compels him to do so. The idea of justice as well as its upkeep in this case are more a duty and responsibility. In the age of experience (Kal Yug), the idea of justice begins to lean towards the letter of law and away from its spirit. Hence, a man like Duryodhan of Mahabharat, is extremely law abiding and will never go against the letter of the law in practice. However, he has no scruples using the letter of the law to violate its spirit. The famous dice game in which he wins Draupadi from her husbands, his cousins the five Pandava brothers, is most illustrative of this. By the law of the land of the time, the win at the gambling table makes the queen his private property, with the right including to strip her in public to humiliate her. He seeks consensus of the gathering nobility whether he was wrong in his interpretation, and nobody could challenge his contention legally, though horrified by the idea. Only when there were no point of law raised for him to refrain, he goes ahead to disrobe the queen.
It is at such times that divine intervention is called for, Pattanaik infers. Krishna represented this and therefore decides to break the letter of the law in this case, to rescue its spirit. Humiliating a queen in the manner was morally unjustifiable even if the law permits it, and he decides to use his divine power to intervene and ensure Draupadi remained clothed, providing endless layer after layer of clothing as Duryodhan removed them one after the other till be fell exhausted. Pattanaik also brings up other analogies to highlight more nuances of this interplay between letter and spirit of the law. Hence, Yudhisthir, he says is someone who aspires to be Ram, and tries to keep both the letter and the spirit of the law intact. His direct opposite is Ravan, for whom neither the letter nor the spirit of the law mattered, and only his whims become the law. This is what a true despot is.
Manipur’s understanding of justice and jurisprudence is probably somewhere closer to the outlook of Duryodhan, but it can also come close to that of Ravan. The former is what is in demonstration in recent in shifting of loyalty by five JD(U) MLAs. They did not break the law as defined by the 10th Schedule, but they broke the spirit of rectitude. The 10th Schedule allows merger of parties, probably to ensure no MLA remains trapped in a party unconditionally even in cases of extreme disagreement within, but not to encourage disloyalty, betrayal or treachery. Ideological shifts can happen in any individual, but these are about changes in fundamental and systemic faiths, not transactional, as is the case in Manipur. Here the shifts in political alliances have little to do with ideology, but determined by cost benefit analyses of where the bread is likely buttered most profitably for the defector. Ideology is faith and belief combined. It would for instance be like the bondage one has with one’s parents. No respectable person would abandon his or her parents even if they become old and disabled, therefore economically a burden. This relationship is instead defined by love, bondage, gratitude, faith and a general belief in the goodness of life therefore beyond trading. Politics should also be like this and politicians should begin treating the ideology they espouse as they would their commitments of loyalty to their parents, and stand with the belief in thunder, lightning or rain. Only then politics and politicians in the state can be said to have attained maturity, deserving an equal measure of honest public esteem. Right now, even this relationship between political leaders and their voters has been reduced to a transactional equation, measured in terms of favours and lucre that flow from one to the other.
But Manipur’s outlook to law and justice often also resembles Pattnaik’s characterisation of Ravan and his law. Here those in power see themselves as immune to law, caring neither for their upkeep in their letter nor in spirit. Indeed, this is a situation in which power becomes the law. It may be recalled how in the last term of the state Assembly, an MLA who defected from day one, instead of being penalised under the provisions of the 10th Schedule was instead made a cabinet minister, and remained so unperturbed for nearly four years. That is, until in the manner Krishna intervened in the case of Draupadi’s disrobing, the Supreme Court stepped in to ban the MLA in question from entering the premises of the Manipur State Legislative Assembly. It was indeed a shameful episode, but then, the sense of shame is something politics and politicians in Manipur have come to shed so completely.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author