Watching what is happening in the BJP-led Manipur government currently, it is difficult to not recall the new debates on the idea of Democracy, and with it, Capitalism, for the two have been successfully portrayed by the Western world as synonymous. Some of the questions asked in exasperation are: Is Capitalism devouring Democracy? Is Democracy failing? Does a failing democracy lead to dictatorship? Etc. These are troubling thoughts, but ones which will not be easy to dismiss, considering the pattern of rise of intolerance and jingoistic nationalism in much of the Capitalist world around the globe in recent times. On the smaller canvas of Manipur, quite obviously there has also been a serious decay in the standard of politics, not for any lofty clash of political ideologies, but from a despicable lack of ideology. Added to this is the false start the present government was so atrociously given by the state governor, Najma Heptulla. It may be recalled the last Manipur Assembly elections in March 2017 threw up a hung verdict with the Congress narrowly missing the majority mark, returning 28 in the house of 60. The BJP was second with 21 seats and needed the support of 10 more MLAs from outside the party to be in the majority. Even if it was to be granted that as an individual Heptulla is allowed to have a leaning towards the BJP, the party she belonged to before retirement from active politics, as a Governor, she was at least expected to exercise a rational judgement on which coalition would give the state the most stable government. The Governor decided the BJP which needed to bring in at least 10 outside supporters would be the more stable and allowed the party to form the government, but at a heavy price of giving away seven of the state’s 12 cabinet berths to non-BJP legislators, including atrociously to a member elected on the Congress ticket. However, when the euphoria of initial victory in wresting power began fading, trouble and tension within the BJP was only to be expected, with original BJP legislators beginning to feel left out while watching smaller partners given the best slices of the power pie. Much water has flowed down the Imphal River in the three and half years that have gone by, and now with the challenge of facing another election just a little over a year from now, the frustration of the side-lined BJP legislators is apparently boiling over.
Manipur’s absurd political theatre is disheartening to say the least. Something seems to have gone completely awry in the state’s understanding of politics and political leadership. Greek philosopher, Plato in The Republic defines a political leader as “Philosopher King”, or somebody who is learned in the arts and the sciences, and at the same time possesses the qualities of a warrior. Plato even suggested gifted children to be identified and trained from childhood to be “Philosopher Kings”, and it is said the British Public Schools of old were modelled on this thought. Boys in these boarding schools (yes, boys only schools for a long time. Girls were sent to convents) were not just taught book knowledge, but also boxing, rugby, swimming, horse riding and more. The result was also acknowledged, most famously in Duke of Wellington’s cryptic statement that “the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playfields of Eton and Harrow”, the two most famous elite private schools in England. It is another matter that these elite private schools are called public schools in this country. Authors Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, in their celebrated book Freedom at Midnight based on the Indian freedom struggle, also makes a similar eulogy when they contended the conquest of this prized colony and more would have to be credited to the civil and military leadership schooled in these educational institutions. Much has changed ever since in keeping with the completely transformed world order, but that is another story. The relevant question is, are Manipur’s political leadership of today anywhere close to the image of a “Philosopher King”? How exactly is a leader defined in Manipur today? The picture that is emerging is, democracies will remain healthy so long as the people look for, and elect those among them who they consider as possessing the qualities of “Philosopher Kings”. Is Manipur doing this?
To refer back to Plato, he uses the analogy of a ship in the middle of the sea, where the ship is like a country, to describe the task of leadership. Keep in mind the ship he refers to is of the 5th Century vintage unequipped with modern navigational technology. The safety of the ship, its passengers and crew depended on the quality of its leaders. They would have to be a set of people capable of reading the positions of the stars, predict weather conditions, know accurate map reading and behaviour of the sea’s turbulences etc. Because their own safety is at stake, the people would also choose the best among them to lead them. This is the basis of the democracy. Indeed, democracy has also been defined as a system in which the people periodically elect the elite amongst them to lead them. The quality of the present-day leaderships – indeed political systems – all over the world, are being scrutinised once again in the wake of the COVID challenge. How has America, England, India, Italy, Spain fared so badly in protecting their citizens against the pandemic, and by contrast how has South Korea, Japan, Germany, and importantly China which follows a completely different political system, been so successful in the fight against the virus? It cannot be a coincidence that in all of the countries which successfully fought off the pandemic, the leaderships are dominated by extremely educated and professionally qualified leaders. German Chancellor Angela Markel for instance has a doctorate in quantum chemistry. The profile of leaderships in most of these countries left unravaged by COVID are similar. Likewise, it is said that while the Chinese leadership circle is crowded with engineers and scientists, the American leadership heirarchy is heavy with lawyers and MBAs.
In India, more specifically in Manipur, we all know who are most likely to emerge as “democratic” leaders. Today the state’s leadership circle is dominated by former government contractors who earned big money, and retired bureaucrats with big enough purses. There are even people under official scanner for alleged timber smuggling and involvement in drugs dealing. In terms of the classical definition of a leader as “Philosopher King”, probably some of the underground leaders from the state would be several notches above our current band of “democratically” elected leaders, and this is our tragedy. It has become a system which excludes its intellectual elites from leadership roles, and instead chooses the crass, opulent and dubiously wealthy. If we quickly scan Manipur’s history since it became a full-fledged state in 1972, it will be noticed, this was not always the case. Once upon a time the society taught its children that teachers, especially school teachers, were next to godly. Reciprocally, the initial decades of statehood saw the emergence of teachers as state leaders. From Oja Rishang to Oja Nipamacha, many in these early leadership circles had school teacher backgrounds. But the arrival of the new age of politician-bureaucrat-contractor nexus to siphon off public money, heralded the arrival of a new brand of opulent nouveau-riches in leadership position. The chaos we are witnessing today is a result of this degradation.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author