Death of Politics in Little Paradise
Both Goa and Manipur went into the polls to constitute their respective State Assemblies in 2017. In both the states, Congress came out as the single largest party but fell short of majority to form the government. BJP managed to form the governments by cobbling up support from other parties in both the states. It’s not a surprising development. Generally speaking, there is something about smaller states in India which make them vulnerable to undesirable influence by whoever rule in New Delhi. BJP was then, and still is, in power in New Delhi and it did have an impact on the government formation in these two states. Historically, both states are also amongst those states which are notorious for political instability. But the similarity ends there as far as its political culture is concerned.
Public Morality and Politicians in Sanaleipak
Vishwajit Rane, son of former Congress Chief Minister Pratapsingh Rane, who was earlier elected on a Congress ticket became a cabinet minister in the BJP led government in Goa. Th. Shayamkumar who was elected on a Congress ticket also became a cabinet minister in BJP led government in Manipur. Behind these seemingly similar developments that marked the government formation in these two states, there is a glaring and critical difference between the two. Rane, just after being elected, resigned from both the Indian National Congress and the Assembly. And he thus did not take part in the floor test to determine the fate of the BJP led government. Later on, he fought the bye-election on BJP ticket and won to continue as minister. That’s respecting the rule of law, the letter and spirit of the 10th Schedule of the Constitution which defines defection and penalty for the offence.
In Manipur, Shyamkumar was not only sworn in as an MLA but also as a cabinet minister, having submitted the certificate of having elected on a Congress ticket to the secretariat of the Assembly! How is it possible? Is it legal? Does it affront constitutional morality? Does it offend one’s political sensibility? Whatever be the answers, the fact remains that it is possible in Manipur, and in all likelihood, it seems such realities would remain possible as long as the matters are left to the denizens of the state. Fortunately, Supreme Court finally intervened and Shyamkumar has since been disqualified. But by then, he had executed his responsibilities and duties as a Cabinet Minister for more than three years!
Now, what happened to those orders and activities that he had carried out as a Minister? Are those still legitimate, legally and/or politically and/or morally? Such question can have legitimacy in a society wherein normative life has not been subverted. But not in those places where rule of law and public morality have been jeopardized. Indeed, such questions amount to asking whether the Government of Manipur is committing a contempt of court when it extends the imposition of AFSPA on a yearly basis (as it has often been done) despite Supreme Court order of 1997 which stipulated the time frame of six months? Are those activities carried out by the armed forces beyond the six months legal? Or, can those acts be considered “protected” under AFSPA? Or for that matter, all those activities carried out by the armed forces (along with the state police) in areas which are no longer under the AFSPA, legal or protected under the AFSPA? These are questions which will not be asked, and even when these are being raised, these questions would barely make sense or matter, if not contemptuously dismissed as “academic” and “theoretical”. Quite obviously, subversion of rule of law and civilized order marked by normativity is a practical and concrete facet of the ground reality. And ground reality could be overwhelming at times, and it could numb the psyche and jeopardize the capacity to reflect and see beyond the immediate and/or what lies behind the manifest realities. In that, it does not come as a surprise when a non-Manipuri journalist raised one of these questions in her book, citing a serving a non-Manipuri IPS officer in the state.
Subversion of rule of law is a salient aspect of the political culture of the state. For instance, the case of Shyamkumar is not the only one that goes against the letter and spirit of the anti-defection law. There are Congress MLAs who have openly declared their support for, and acted in support of, the BJP led government all these while, albeit they sit in the opposition bench! Let’s not forget that as per the relevant Supreme Court rulings, one does not have to officially resign to avoid the provisions of anti-defection law. In its interpretation of the expression “voluntarily” giving up membership of a party in the said law, the Court says that it does not have to be necessarily formal resignation. Giving up membership, it says, could be inferred from the conduct of the members, their expressed opposition to their party or support for another party could be deemed as having resigned from their party on whose ticket they became members of the legislature.
This reading of the law can only matter amongst conscientious citizenry of civilized societies. When the underlying spirit and/or moral foundation of a given law do not matter, people will look for “technical” loopholes in the bare act. That’s how vested interest and decadence would manifest. On the other hand, even when certain act is “technically” permissible in some law, people may not necessarily act out what is possible under that law. S/he may respond differently by choosing to read that law together with other laws and the underlying spirit and purpose of those laws, if not the moral foundation, or weigh in with some other consideration such as ideological and political issues.
For instance, MLAs are permitted to vote for a candidate other than the candidate of her/his party in Rajya Sabha election. Such act of cross voting would not invite action under the anti-defection law. And yet MLAs usually do not vote against the candidate of their party or the one supported by their party. This is largely because of the party system, a crucial aspect of a given political order, especially that of a democratic kind. Political party an institution that mediates between state and society (including private individuals and their families). It enables people to organize themselves politically to pursue their aspirations based on some interests and worldviews (of which ideology is a systematized reflection).
Democratic system allows people to organize themselves into different political parties to express and pursue their ideologies and political objectives. Simultaneously, it also facilitates these competing ideologies and political forces to engage amongst themselves to form government without endangering the system itself. In such a system, particularly with a parliamentary form of government, while pursuing its ideology and political objectives, the number of members that a political party has in a given house (Lower or Upper House) matter. Thus, voting for a candidate belonging to a rival political party is to weaken one’s party and subvert its political objectives. As long as one remains a member of a given party, s/he works in line with those political and ideological objectives of the party. In short, besides law, there are political and ideological consideration that guide the behavior of the people.
Thus, in the run-up to the Rajya Sabha election in Gujarat last June, about half a dozen Congress MLAs resigned from the Assembly, weakening the position of Congress in that election. Ahmed Patel had then accused the BJP of indulging in horse-trading in the midst of the corvid crisis. Technically speaking, those MLAs could have remained as Congress MLAs and voted for the BJP candidates. But that would be contradictory to the stated objectives of the political party of which they are members. If they continue to work against the interests of the party, the meaning and purpose of political party as a crucial part of the political system will also get eroded. Reflective of a well-established political culture, those Gujarat MLAs resigned both from the Assembly and the Congress as well.
And what did we have in Manipur during the recent Rajya Sabha election? Two MLAs of the Congress Party voted for the BJP candidate, ensuring a BJP member, rather than that of their own party, as the lone MP of the state in the Rajya Sabha. They still remain MLAs and members of the Indian National Congress! Technically, there’s nothing wrong. But tellingly, it speaks of a different political culture that Manipur has.
If one wonders, especially those from other states, as to how these are possible, the simple answer is this: It is possible precisely because politics as a Janus faced animal is almost, if not already, dead in this state. In other words, rule of law, established institutional mechanisms, public morality etc have all gone to the dogs for a long time. Indeed, a state which claims to be a “2000 years old civilization”, subversion of normative life of a civilized order is near complete. Acknowledging this fact, some have even called the state a “failed state” and editorials in local print media have observed that the decadence has reached its “nadir”.
Public Morality and Society
Such observations are not without reasons. It’s not only in electoral politics wherein we sense the collapse of public morality, of which lawlessness is a concrete manifestation. Take for instance, Manipur is officially a “dry state” but alcoholic beverages are freely available and openly sold. Not only that, even in public, including at state functions, alcoholic drinks are served! It will come as an abnormal situation to anybody who come from a society in which rule of law has at least some semblance of reality. But not to the people of the state; it’s a normalized reality, a part of their ground reality, their lived world, an ethos which has come to be part of their, if one may, “national character”.
Abnormality does not bother people as it gets normalized. But visitors to the state have noticed this and written about it. On a personal note, there was this group of American students who had visited India as a part of their programme some years ago. Manipur was on their itinerary. Being a part of the extended faculty, I had accompanied them and took some classes. During one of the lectures, one conducted inside a lawn in Kangla on political history and culture of the land and people, I mentioned this fact of alcoholic drinks being served in state function. It was received with stunned expressions on their faces, and some even exclaimed “weird”, “how come” etc! I suppose, those were understandable responses. For, they came from a culture in which rule of law is more or less deeply internalized. But there’s nothing substantially weird about such naked display of lawlessness in a society wherein rule of law has lost its substance.
This subversion of a normative life is also reflected in the abuse of state machinery and law. The state has witnessed people being detained on flimsy grounds for postings, including some which would have been otherwise dismissed as childish rants, on social media or expressing certain opinion which differ from those in power. However, this blatant misuse of state power is not new in the state. It’s been part of how the state has been functioning for decades.
Unleashing unbridled violence, with or without the legal fiction called AFSPA that gives a juridical form to sovereign decisionism, has been there for decades. Such violence which frees or loosens itself from normative constraints is one critical source of the death of politics in the state. But normalization of uninhibited violence has been not only the language of the state. It has also been the palpable language of those who fall outside of its realm. This is to say, the collapse of public morality pervades state and society in Manipur.
“Hattok-aaga phadouni” (better to kill them off), “hattradi yararoi” (it won’t do unless they are killed), “kapthatlura” (should you be shot), “hattok-ura” (“should you be killed”) have masqueraded as the dominant language of politics for a long time. The understanding that even the invocation of violence has to be mediated by certain normative consideration has been thrown into the wind. If a civilized society thinks that the saying, “give a bad name to the dog and hang him” is used to contrast what constitutes a just and civilized order that follows certain normative standards, the state has long time ago abandoned that. Instances of violence in the state rather seem to say, “hang the dog, and give him a bad name”! It is an orientation that both state and non-state, including society, have practiced. The so-called “mob justice”, seen in “moral policing”, lynching, and people’s homes and properties being destroyed or people being thrown out of their homestead, are concrete testimonies of that orientation.
Indeed, violence is not merely that of physical kinds. It comes in the form of cultural and psychological violence such as imposition of certain views, and intimidation and humiliation that seek to subvert individual liberty and dignity. Take for instance, the idea of “freedom of speech” in the state. People might talk of “freedom of speech” primarily, if not exclusively, in relation to the acts of the state. But the fact is diktat has been a prominent ethos in society for a long time. “Changjarak-u” (should come and/or surrender) and “wakhan-taminnasi” (let’s seek understanding) have been the vocabularies that communicate subtle ways of intimidation. “Thingjinlura” or “thingjing-le” (Should it be banned or it’s been banned) is practiced far more frequently by forces which are not part of the state.
Incidentally, outsiders or non-native of the state might be bewildered that certificate from Central Board Of Film Certification (CBFC) is not enough for a (Manipuri) film to be screened publicly. It needs clearance from non-state professional bodies! Such bodies can ban films, and state does not or cannot do anything about it.
A crucial aspect in the state is that the culture of diktat does not work alone. It feeds, and get fed by, a palpable intellectual bankruptcy as well. The dominant intellectual style does not encourage impersonal and reasoned deliberation (see, Intellectual Style and Public Sphere: Testimonies of a Socio-Political Decadence, 22 March, 2020 https://www.fpsjreview.in/home/articles/41/intellectual-style-and-public-sphere-testimonies-of-a-socio-political-decadence). This intellectual culture often rests on personalized discourses. Besides, there is an unmistakable sign of discussion being informed by a ritual of competing who knows better rather than an act of exchanging views. This performative dimension is complimented by an enactment of modesty, mostly without substance. In fact, beneath such enactment, there is a perceptible psychology of “nang kayam khangladana”, “mana loina khangbei mawong”, “khangde hainu” etc (“what do you know”, “as if s/he knows everything”, “don’t tell me that I do not know” etc). This deeply personalized discourses often lead to deflection from the issues at hand. With the erosion of old traditional norms of conduct, that of “houna lonchat” and “thaksi khasi” (traditional codes of appropriate behavior; we shall look at this more in detail later), matter become all the more pathetic.
This being so, it does not come as surprise when Dr. R.K. Nimai (IAS), a former top bureaucrat of the state, in a recent television show in local electronic media, talked about how his writings on Covid issues in media have elicited personalized responses rather than addressing the issues which have been raised. Personal insinuation is not the only manifestation of the ethos. Sometimes, it manifests itself in the form of brawl in public, including on television.
In other words, capacity to engage in an informed and decent manner has long been compromised in the state. Responding to difference of opinion in an informed manner, including putting forward a coherent and hard hitting rebuttal, calls for some labour and understanding of the issues at hand as well as a character to conduct oneself with certain sense of culture and propriety. In a society in which normativity has been eroded to a great extent, name calling, expletives, trolling, personalized discourses etc are likely to come as normalized — and in a way, natural — and “exciting” or “interesting” way to conduct oneself. That such an orientation is a sign of violence and decadent ethos seems to be barely understood by the same people who point accusing finger at others, particularly to politicians and those forces that are used to issuing diktats.
Unfortunately, in the recent times, those associated with the emergence of “new media” (e.g., internet and social media) and right wing turn in politics seem to have only accentuated this malaise. Even the most “educated” people in the state seem to suffer from this malady. Given that there is something political about intellectual life itself — that anti-intellectual orientation often comes with authoritarian regimes, and persecution of intellectuals are parts of human history are testimonies of this fact, such an ethos contributes handsomely to the destruction of a civilized life, and thereby death of politic in the state.
Indeed, ignorance and/or defensive arrogance of fragile egos and/or vested interests, motivated propaganda and myopic indulgence of groups that marked our multi-layered conflicts and fractured polity have come to undermine meaningful communications and subvert the public sphere in the state. These aspects continue to nurture and accentuate the culture of violence — at individual as well as collective levels, and conflict in the state. Consequently, any idea of democratic engagement, politics which is to be shaped by deliberation gets derailed. In short, these acts of violence and intimidation, including those indulgence which show scant regards for individual’s dignity, have come to be part of the forces which seek the death of politics in the state.
But how have we come to this state of affairs? To answer this question, we need to look at four broad issues. Let us turn to these issues to put the death of politics in Sanaleipak in perspective.
To be continued
The author is a social and political psychologist who teaches social psychology and sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi