Dialogue  January - March, 2008 , Volume 9  No. 3

Experiments with Democracy

D.N. Bezboruah*

Close on the heels of the panchayat elections of Assam, three states of the Northeast – Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura – have just completed their Assembly elections and two of them are going through the process of forming governments. In the panchayat elections of Assam, the Congress had a landslide victory as expected. But things were not all that easy for the Congress in the Assembly elections. An occasion like this naturally lends itself to thoughts on how well democracy has taken roots in the Northeast, especially against the backdrop of terrorism or insurgency. The Northeast had three princely states – Manipur, Tripura and Sikkim – but also other tribal states where the need to select or elect a chieftain provided the right soil for the democratic experiment. In fact, states like Nagaland have far higher levels of egalitarianism than mainland India. One recalls the first stint of Mr Hokise Sema as Chief Minister of Nagaland in the 1960s. It was the norm for ministers to have their drivers and other subordinate staff sitting with them at the same table for lunch or snacks when they were out on tour. And if a minister’s car got stuck in the mud, the minister would get down and push it along with the rest. One can never hope to see anything like this in the heartland states of India. But whether it was Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland or Meghalaya there were chiefs who ruled. In Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland they had the clan chiefs and in Meghalaya they had the Syiems. Even so, the change in the mechanism for picking the leaders underwent a sea change in all these states. Instead of selecting (or endorsing the selection by the elders) people had to elect their leaders. Quite naturally, one had the most bizarre manifestations of the democratic principle. For many years, the Arunachal Pradesh Assembly had no Opposition at all. And then, for some years, it had only one MLA in the Opposition. What underscores the irony of it all is that former Chief Minister Gegong Apang, who had reduced a democracy to a one-party monolith without Opposition, later became the one-man Opposition of the State Assembly.

It is hardly surprising that the experiments with democracy have led to quite a few aberrations that could have been avoided had the commitment to the greatest good of the greatest number been a more compelling objective of elected representatives than realizing personal ambitions at public cost. The obsession with this objective has led to an irrational concern for the privileges and fundamental rights of our legislators at the cost of the fundamental rights of citizens. It has also led legislators of states with comparatively small Legislative Assemblies to get into the toppling game in situations where even though a political party has greater numerical strength than its rivals, it lacks a clear majority in the House. In states like Meghalaya and Manipur, horse-trading has been quite rampant on a number of occasions, and cabinets have had to be restructured with different coalitions emerging as a result of defections. If anything, this has been more or less the norm in the case of Meghalaya and Manipur. The present situation in Meghalaya after the latest Assembly elections in the State is symptomatic. The Congress, with 25 seats in a 60-member House had the largest number of MLAs, but Mr P.A.Sangma, former Speaker of the Lok Sabha and leader of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) quickly assumed leadership of the Meghalaya Progressive Alliance and paraded 31 legislators before Meghalaya Governor S.S.Sidhu. He also announced his resignation of his Lok Sabha membership. However, the Governor chose to follow convention and to invite Mr D.D.Lapang of the Congress to form the government again. He wasted no time in swearing in Mr Lapang alone and giving him 10 days to prove his majority. This is going to be difficult for Mr Lapang considering that his regional party supporters of the previous government have all become supporters of the NCP-led alliance now. In any case, Mr P.A.Sangma’s son Conrad Sangma (also a legislator) promptly filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court challenging Governor Sidhu’s decision to swear in Mr Lapang as Chief Minister. Given Mr Lapang’s situation, political observers are of the view that he has merely been given an opportunity to indulge in horse-trading in order to keep the Congress in power..

By contrast, Mr Manik Sarkar has been returned to power in Tripura for the third time in succession which makes it the fourth successive innings for the CPM in the State. The CPM’s return to power in Tripura has been smooth and uneventful since it has a three-fourths majority in the State Assembly. The electorate has rewarded good performance by the government once again. Tripura is also a state that is comparatively free from corruption. Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar is reported to have a ridiculously small bank balance, and no house or car of his own. People know what to believe about their leaders. The less the corruption in a state, the lower the chances of anti-incumbency voting. This has been well proved in the case of Tripura. This has also been partially proved in the case of Nagaland. The latest Assembly elections have seen the strength of the ruling Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) increasing to 35 in a 60-member House, with an Independent legislator (who was earlier in the Congress camp) joining the DAN coalition. Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio has been sworn in for a second term.

For those who would argue that democracy has failed in the Northeast, the obvious rebuttal is that it has not failed any more in the Northeast than it has in the rest of the country. What even the militant groups and the separatists in search of autonomy realize is that it is the freedom of choice that democracy provides which enables them to raise separatist slogans or to chart a militant course. Had there been dictators or kings instead, they would have been promptly mowed down and there would have been no human rights groups to take up their causes. It is significant that even in strife-torn Nagaland, the polling turn-out was around 85 per cent – a clear indication of the choice of government that the people had made. Two other developments are significant. One is that Nagaland conducted elections even in polling stations within Assam territory, and the other is that there was a case of three militants who had tried to prevent people from voting in Nagaland being beaten up by the voters. One of the militants was lynched to death. People in the Northeast realize that democracy is an imperfect system, but they also realize that other systems are much worse. They have made their choice, and for many more years perhaps we are likely to have a situation where democracy will have to coexist with insurgency that has been turned into an industry in a region that has not had the benefit of the scale of development that is there in the rest of India. Democracy with many powers centralized in distant Kolkata is a far cry from the ideal, but it is still far better than other forms of governance. And that is why the ULFA’s call to boycott the Independence Day and the Republic Day in Assam is beginning to be defied, with more and more people hoisting the national flag.




Of poll verdicts and the Hobson’s choice

Patricia Mukhim*

Matrilineal Meghalaya returned only one woman candidate out of nineteen in the fray. This, despite the fact that women voters outnumber men by over twenty thousand. Every polling station in Meghalaya had a serpentine queue of female voters while the men’s queue was practically empty. In Nagaland out of four women in the fray not a single one was elected. Does this mean that women who speak at seminars about political empowerment, themselves do not favour women as political representatives? Or it is plain lack of awareness and a deeply embedded patriarchy at work? For what is matriliny except a cultural cosmetic used to dress up a society that is ostensibly different from others.

Interpreting the peoples’ verdict in Meghalaya has always been a politically excruciating exercise? Was it a vote for change? Or was it a veto against change? Did people really think before they voted? Is the rural populace really capable of analyzing issues, reading and interpreting manifestoes or asking the right questions? With polling in the backwaters of Jaintia Hills, which incidentally also have very low literacy rates, registering a turn out of over 90 per cent, the voting could not have been a cerebral affair. So what was it that excited voters to come out in droves on March 3? Now that the heat and dust of elections have settled, it is important to make a level-headed assessment of the matter.

The presence of astute election observers in Meghalaya could not stop the money game. Money was the determinant for the victory of some candidates and the defeat of others. A week before the polling date, wholesale stationary stores in Shillong had sold out all envelopes. This is an astonishing fact. During elections, envelopes are used for two purposes. One, to distribute identity slips to voters and secondly to distribute money. This is the first time that such a strange phenomenon has occurred in Meghalaya. It is a telling account of the signs of the times. For the first time people received their identity slips and personal appeals of candidates minus the ubiquitous envelope.

Now that the losers have recovered from fatigue and disappointment they have also started calculating where they have gone wrong. None of the defeated MLAs have the grace to admit that they lost because they did not deliver. On the contrary they are cursing the electorate for letting them down. Losers also argue that people in Meghalaya do not care about development. They do not even know the meaning of development. What they want is money for votes. But whether this is a universal principle is the moot point.

In the prosperous coal belt of Jaintia Hills, candidates, many of whom are coal traders, are known to have paid money to political parties for their candidature and then to pay the voters to get elected. The amounts distributed varied from Rs 5000 per household to 5000 per head. It depended on the financial status of the families. Candidates calculate that if they spend Rs 5000 per household for 1000 households with an average of seven-eight members per household they would still have spent only Rs fifty lakhs. For those who have set aside four to five crores for election spending, fifty lakhs is peanuts. But as far as the poor are concerned, five thousand rupees is a windfall. It could buy five quintals of rice which would see them through for six months. Money has therefore been a great incentive for the high voter turn-out.

Urban Meghalaya on the other hand did not vote with such enthusiasm. This is indicative of the apathy of the educated middle class who vote with a certain mindset. In such constituencies money plays only a limited role. It is the rural voter who is paid his chai-pani each time he fills up the ground for a political rally. Then he/she makes another visit to ostensibly come to wish the candidate who is often based in the district or sub-divisional headquarters or in Shillong city. Then too the visitor is sent back with a generous packet to keep him/her in good humour until the polling day. It is not unusual to see the same voters visiting all candidates and pledging their undying loyalty equally to all. The candidates know this but cannot afford to offend anyone. In the end, the best paymaster wins the race.

Those who have analysed voter behaviour this time, feel that manifestoes, appeals, rallies election meetings etc are all a waste of time. Sitting MLAs who have lost said they it was because they spent their MLA schemes judiciously and therefore did not divert anything to their pockets. As a result they had little money to throw around. They had hoped to win the voters’ mandate through their performance but that only boomeranged. Many have therefore decided that henceforth they would turn the elections into a pure and simple investment. Throw money and get back ten times the amount after they are elected.

Meghalaya has twenty seven millionaires in the fray. Of these only about ten are hard core business people. The rest are all politicians who have amassed wealth from their political offices. Although there was a lot of interest generated about the disproportionate assets accumulated by Deborah Marak who owns an astounding 112 crores, this interest is likely to be short-lived and settle down like the election dust. Even the enthusiasm shown by different groups to seek information about the implementation of MLA schemes by using the right to information (RTI) will also die down. However, some vigilante groups in Sohra have been persistent in unearthing all the scams of the former chief minister Dr FA Khonglam. This led to his defeat. Nemesis does catch up even though a high degree of cynicism persists about why some candidates lose and others win.

Over-all the voting this time was a vote for change. There are twenty five new faces and also several political stalwarts who have been defeated by first-timers. Mawlai a traditional vote bank of the regional parties and a tribal enclave known for its chauvinism and intolerance for ‘outsiders’ (read non-tribals) has for the first time in Meghalaya’s history, voted the Congress. This is a definite vote for change. Could it be the Amit Paul factor that has altered mindsets in Mawlai? Last time the crooner created a history of sorts when his presence in that locality drew a huge crowd that went berserk each time he engaged them with his lilting melody.

By Monday people will be back at work amidst speculations galore about who will form the next government in Meghalaya. Two competing groups have staked their claims before Governor SS Sidhu. One group has the numbers, the other does not. The Congress’s only claim to government formation is because it is the party that won with the single largest majority. There is no hard and fast rule that the Governor should not invite the party that already has the numbers. If the Congress with only 25 seats plus three independents is called to form the government what will follow is high intrigue and horse-trading as the party tries to purchase loyalties with money.

The post election scenario in Meghalaya has always been a rough landing. To a large extent the electorate is to blame for the hotch-potch verdict. But have the people of Meghalaya ever voted for a political party? No party in Meghalaya has a grass-roots following. People use the euphemism of ‘party workers’ to secure contracts and political posts. So almost all party workers are contractors squeezing out all they can from the system and thereby giving a bad name to the party. Party workers are seen by people as the worst exploiters and they are therefore the last persons to be able to win votes.

Party leaders and MLAs do not believe in investing in the party because in the end it is not the party that wins them elections. It is money that works. Political mobilization therefore is a meaningless exercise and one that pays no dividends. When Rahul Gandhi visited Meghalaya this was pointed out to the young scion of the Congress but he too has perhaps decided that it is best to leave his party to the devices of his more experienced seniors.

In Nagaland, a woman candidate who could have been a strong contender for the post of legislator suddenly withdrew from the fray. She had applied for a ticket from the Nagaland Peoples’ Front (NPF). It appears that she was asked to make way for a male candidate. This tentative position of women and their propensity to bow to male diktat is a great setback for women’s political participation.

To talk of free and fair adult franchise when so much of money has been pushed into the electoral process up until the very last moment, is pure bunkum. Elections may have been conducted with lesser violence and greater orderliness because administrators followed the blue book but neither they nor the Chief Election Commission has the special purpose vehicle to detect the exchange of money between the voter and the vote seeker. Unearthing this secret deal would require a sting operation of the Tehelka variety.

It is bad enough that money is used to buy votes. What is worse is that the Congress High Command representatives were caught with a cache of twenty four lakh rupees after they said they had distributed rupees five lakhs to each of sixty candidates. This kind of blatant display of money power can only corrupt the tribal societies down to the very roots. As it is, this time both Meghalaya and Nagaland have a record number of crore-patis contesting. Is this not enough to show the world that politics is the best way to enter the millionaire and multi-millionaire bracket? Elections have therefore become a farce we can do away with.

And now we come to government formation. In Meghalaya the Congress with only 25 MLAs and 3 independents was called to form the government despite the fact that the NCP-UDP-BJP and others together had formed a coalition of 31, signed a joint petition and paraded themselves before the governor. Manipur Governor, SS Sidhu who is currently the acting Governor of Meghalaya, is known to be a Congress party lackey and was dogged with controversies since he was Joint Secretary in the Defence Ministry. The Congress party is known to post its old faithfuls who will carry out its bidding in every states they are posted. In Meghalaya governors have steered clear of politics. This is the first time that allegations of political opportunism have been leveled against the Raj Bhavan occupant. Well, we can only hope to sink further down the abyss if people do not awaken and reclaim their democratic spaces.



Manipur in total anarchy

Pradip Phanjoubam*                                                                 

With each passing day, Manipur continues to sink deeper and deeper into the abyss. From a daily staple of at least an extra judicial execution, committed either by government forces or else one and sundry other of the ever mushrooming number of militant organisations, a new and dangerous culture is beginning to take shape. Government officials, especially of the engineering departments are on a routine basis being taken into captivity, again by sundry organisations, all for huge ransoms (and not for chastising wrongdoings as used to be).

All this, even as the state looks on helplessly. At this moment, there seems very little that the state can do either, for its adversaries seem to be everywhere, having penetrated many of the government’s own institutions. In alarming frequency, extortionists held, or in some cases killed, by the police in encounters have turned out to be the state’s own employees attached to one or the other of its armed constabularies.

There seems very little that the militant organisations themselves are able to do to keep the semblance of an ideological struggle to the protracted turmoil in the land either. There is a constant mushrooming of new militant or else semi-militant organisations. Sometimes these take the route of an organisation splintering endlessly into numerous smaller factions, each of these units in the process acquiring a clout of its own through violent and intimidatory means. They also often come to feud with each other, taking a tragic toll of collateral damages from amongst the ordinary citizenry.

Ostensibly a Pavlovian condition has been allowed to happen in the unfolding drama. In the month of February alone, there have been                 two kidnapping of engineers. This new culture of kidnapping officials for ransom should be cause for concern for everybody. Unlike the daily mayhems, which no doubt are objectionable, this one has another very strong material incentive to ensure its continuance, unless there is an intervention either by the law, or more pertinently by those underground organisations which are interested in not letting a complete dilution of the revolutionary image of their struggle. If informed sources are to be believed, the stake at these kidnap games can run into crores of rupees. There is little need to explain why there would always be people who would go to whatever limits if the reward at the end of it is so irresistible.

Small wonder also why government engineering departments are always caught in the most unenviable quagmires every financial year-end when they have to present their annual progress reports, especially their departmental balance sheets.

Easier said than done, but we can think of two ways of tackling this problem. One is to make any reward unavailable at all. This will be a painful measure, for surely many kidnap victims would become casualties, at least initially, and nobody obviously would want to volunteer to bell the cat and be reduced to an official statistics of the violence in the land. However, it must be taken note that Israel and the US, two countries which had become extremely vulnerable, had used this tactics with a remarkable measure of success.

The second would be to introduce enough proportionate deterrents against such crimes. Sadly the state does not seem to have either the means, will, or clue as to how it can go about doing this.

There is yet another angle to the problem. Because of nebulous and questionable government policies, the line between lawful and unlawful has been made extremely fuzzy. Crimes by organisations declared unlawful are bad enough but bad as it may be, it is somewhat understandable even though undesirable, for outlaws breaking the law is expected behaviour. But we now have a situation in which organisation which are no longer declared outlaws, and in fact ones with whom none other than the Indian Army has a suspension of operation agreement (now known by its acronym, SOO), joining the ransom kidnapping spree of engineers.

What exactly is the message being sent out to the larger public as well as to prospective underground groups still outlawed by the government, and who the government probably would like to woo to come to the negotiating table someday or the other? Is it a motto of “join SOO and join the plunder”?                                                    

Wild Goose Chase

Of all the north eastern states, Manipur must rank as the most problematic. This story is not just about insurgency and the complex maze of conflicting interests it has created, but it is also very much about a singular lack of leadership commitment to steer the state out of the troubled waters it is trapped so miserably in, although it is common knowledge that if allowed to remain in this condition for long, the entire ship may sink. There are those who believe in their false sense of complacency that this ship is unsinkable. They better climb down from their ego fast and remember the words of the onboard in-house engineer in the Titanic, a ship once thought unsinkable, after it hit the iceberg on that cold fateful midnight of April 15, 1912 and a deep gash cut in its steel hull. To the confident retorts from many of the crew that she cannot sink, in cold, scientific certainty, he simply said: “She is made of iron. She will sink.”

One is not interested in making any self fulfilling prophecy of doom, but one is definitely interested in urging one and all to be wary that a catastrophe is not an impossibility for Manipur at this moment. It is a dangerously rocking ship in a tempestuous sea, and nobody is willing to do anything to rescue it. As a matter of fact, those who are rocking it (which almost everybody is doing), are continuing to do so, unmindful of the danger they are putting everybody, including themselves in. This is so because the immediate returns for being unmindful of this danger is too addictive – corruption. Every act of official corruption, adds to the residue of ill will against the establishment, and this residue is at a critical point of explosion today. Yet official corruption keeps growing exponentially. The reports of wealth in the hands of ministers and bureaucrats have become rich materials for fables. The open talks of percentage cuts by ministers from government contract works, the whispers of bribe amounts running into several lakhs of rupees for even a post of sub inspector in the police, for that matter for appointments and transfers of government employees in any department, are reverberating everywhere. True all of it cannot be real, but it is also equally true that all of it cannot be fiction either.

It came up in the Assembly in March during its budget session 2008. Charges of extortion by the police and other government forces were flying in all direction, so were charges of corruption in the administration. Then there was also the oblique reference of legislators harbouring militants made by none other than the chief minister in his address to the House. It may be recalled similar charges had been made against him by Outlook weekly sometime ago and he tamely refused to respond. It is nice to see gloves coming off in the slugfest in the Assembly once in a while, but as raw as the debates were, so were the issues thrashed. Whoever would have imagined extortion by government forces, or corruption in the appointment of law keepers, or open nexus of militants and legislators would become matters fit for hot debates in the august Assembly. But this is the state’s reality. Needless to say, it is a desperate one, needing immediate and drastic remedies. Ignoring this any longer would be at the peril of a total system collapse. Yet it is difficult to imagine there would be a chance of heart just as yet, and it would be back to the old story of percentage cuts, corruption, bribery, amassing ill-gotten wealth etc. All the worries of the dangers of the boat capsizing would be forgotten too.

The frustrating question is, how can anybody who has partaken of the forbidden rewards of corruption ever be serious about checking corruption. How can law keepers who have joined the game of extortion ever be interested in fighting extortion, how can dishonest contractors and businessmen, knowing fully well those who make the rules can be bribed, be interested in sacrificing huge illegal profits. No, it is not just a nexus, and everybody knows this. On the other hand, it is more in the nature of a merry-go-round – a paradoxical situation in which each of the carriage is in an illusory (or deceptive in this case) chase of each other, knowing fully well that the distance between any two carriages cannot be narrowed, and hence nobody can catch the other ahead of him or her. No, this will not do, Sir. The reformation will have to begin from the self and then only others can be forced to reform.

So Near Yet So Far

The fate of so many novel Central government programmes, such as the midday meal scheme, aimed at bringing up the standard of primary school education as well as to ensure nutrition amongst children of less than affluent sections of the society, are in an unenviable bind in Manipur, not because these schemes are not applicable to the state, but because the state government has not created the conditions required for them to be applied gainfully. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s, report on the state’s expenditure accounts during the past one year released recently said this in no uncertain terms.

But even before this report was made public, the local media have been equally harsh on the performance of the state on this issue. Leave aside the issue of corruption and slothful government work culture for the time being, for there is a much more fundamental issue at hand – how do you have a meaningful midday meal scheme for students in government schools, when it is a fact that most government schools have more teachers than students. Surely, the midday meals are not meant for workless government school teachers. Moreover, many of these teachers, as has been alleged so vehemently from the remote districts, exist only on paper, and are spotted only on pay days. As photo evidence to draw the attention of the budget session, Imphal Free Press, English daily, printed the picture of a kitchen constructed at a government school under the midday meal scheme, in a totally dilapidated state because of bad construction quality coupled with years of total disuse.

It is lamentable that even as the campaign for “education for all”, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), is being expanded and the Union budget pledged to extend the midday meal to upper primary classes in government and government aided schools in 3,479 educationally backward blocks (para 25 of the Union budget 2008 speech), Manipur is still grappling with, and having to generate the numbers of enrolled government school students to be shown as already benefited from the scheme’s first phase, so that it is not left out of the race in its second phase. It seems it does not really matter if there are no students to eat these meals, for as long as the money required to buy these meals reaches the state, the government is content. And this would be no mean money either, considering the total outlay this year for the SSA is Rs 13,100 crore of which Rs 8000 crore will be left for midday meals.

The logic of politics being such, regardless of performance, Manipur probably would continue, and indeed should continue, to get its share of this cake. But the larger question is, is it not time yet for all to begin worrying that the intended benefits from noble scheme is being missed altogether in the state. Incidentally, the midday meal scheme has been known to work wonders everywhere in the world. One remembers reading about how none other than the former President of America, Bill Clinton, noticed its immense potential during a visit to Brazil while he was in power, and recommended it for the rest of the developing world plagued by impoverishment and illiteracy. Today, India too is discovering the scheme’s power in transforming what it considers the two most important pillars of social sector reform – universal education and health.

What a priceless opportunity to reach nutrition and education to children of the poorer sections of its own society, the Manipur government is forfeiting by not bothering to bring about definitive structural changes in its school system? How many times does it have to be told that everybody, including even those slightly above the poverty line, now shun government schools? At every matriculation examination again, the abysmal status of education imparted in these schools are established beyond any reasonable doubt. Yet the government is content to leave it as it is. Why otherwise would its own budget proposal this year not even have one word to address this issue? Even if it has no clue as to how it can evolve its own comprehensive policy in the regard, as the last mile operator in the delivery system of the Central government’s various social sector reform campaigns, it must at least take care not to snap the link to the intended targets, and wreck the soul of these programmes. But we can only imagine we are talking to a wall, and the answers to the questions we raise are blowing in the wind.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati