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Manipur Elections: An Exercise in Disenchantment

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Bidhan S. Laishram

Elections are festivals of democracy wherein people celebrate sovereignty over themselves. Through the primary instrument of elections, people reaffirm their commitment to democracy and renew their faith in a republic. Elections, however, are also a carnival in democracies. It is especially so in a state like Manipur where these are times for endless processions, feasts, fun and frolicking. Increasingly, it is the second sense of elections that seems to be taking firm roots in Manipur and it has brought about a peculiar culture of frolicking which actively encourages denying the past and forgetting the future whereas elections are meant to be just the opposite: a pledge to the future and a critical eye to the past. However, this culture of frolicking is itself an outcome of a deep disenchantment especially among the youth with the nature and style of politics in the state.

Various factors may be said to have led to the flourishing of this culture of elections as frolicking in Manipur. Decades of political violence, institutional decay, abuse of power by the ruling class, vision-less leaders and an ignoble working of centre-state relations have all contributed to this loss of trust in the political process. On the other hand, the political leaders seem least concerned with the havoc wreaked on the society by these processes. Generations of politicians have understood themselves to be working in a patron-client relationship with the Centre, which demands of them a certain ‘political etiquette’. A younger generation interprets this relationship as one of servility but they are not large enough to form a critical mass as yet. This awareness of powerlessness furthers the sense of disenchantment.

Defections are a reality; and shame is not a virtue of politicians in the eyes of the disenchanted. After the last assembly elections in 2017, the Governor negated the will of the people by her invitation to the BJP to form the government despite the party falling short of 10 MLAs to reach the majority mark at the expense of the Congress that needed the support of just 3 more MLAs. The BJP formed the government and the next five years have been a dirty drama of defections and disqualification cases that did not show the office of the Speaker in good light. It, thus, leads to the sense among the people that the whole exercise is a sham and one’s franchise is meaningless.

As the campaigning intensifies, the public discourse is marked by an absence of debates on larger political issues that have plagued contemporary Manipur. There is a certain unwillingness or ineptitude on the part of the political leaders to address issues such as repeal or removal of AFSPA, political solutions to insurgency, the integrity of the state, autonomy to hill districts, drug-trafficking and the youth, etc. Moreover, manifestoes are rendered more or less meaningless by the enthusiasm of representatives to switch camps in pursuit of power. The disenchantment then afflicts even the political leaders albeit on a different plane. Obliteration and abandoning of issues can indeed be a function of disenchantment.

In regard to the chances of forming the next government, both the leading parties – the BJP and the Congress seem confident of getting a majority by themselves. While the BJP has not entered into an alliance and has fielded candidates in all the 60 seats, the Congress has formed an alliance with smaller, left parties and has declared candidates in 57 seats. The past experience of defections seems to have hurt the Congress so grievously that this time around, the announcement of tickets was soon followed by a pledge-taking ceremony of its candidates in front of major religious shrines in the state. What is in the BJP’s favour is that the party is in power at the Centre. However, its distribution of tickets has landed the party in a major trouble with large number of supporters of those denied tickets protesting on the streets. If it loses the elections, it will be most likely due to its own internal conflicts and contradictions rather than due to the strength and virtues of the opposition.

Two videos circulating on social media paint a depressing picture of the ‘proud people’ of Manipur. In one, which was soon deleted, a party-spokesperson canvassing for his candidate urges the people to vote for him because the candidate, having been an IAS officer, can very well ‘approach the Ministry and beg for money’, referring to how much Manipur needs Centre’s love. In the other video, an old woman kneeling on the ground and bowing to a party flag fully spread is being administered an oath by another woman that in the event of her family not voting for the party, ill-fate shall befall the family. Clearly, the old woman is in financial distress.

Often, the din of a carnival renders invisible undercurrents of melancholy and loss of hope among the people and their resultant indifference to political life. In a scenario like this, elections are no longer seen as promises of a future but rather as the instrument by which the rule of a class of self-seeking elites will be legitimized. It becomes a process in which the people suffer a deep alienation from a sense of peoplehood. Every gesture, be that of an individual or a collective, can carry opposite meanings. Such sort of democratic participation is an exercise in disenchantment rather than an affirmation of democracy. Elections can be a perfect metaphor for masquerades.

Bidhan S Laishram is an Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi.

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