Intriguing source of political legitimacy
Exactly where do politician, in particular in the Northeast states, draw their legitimacy is a puzzling question. While in power, they end up reducing politics to a mass orgy of selfish pursuits and misuse of power, yet their electorates remain so forgiving and willingly bring them back to power. What is it about power that benumbs the masses? Before attempting an answer this question, a quick recap of what has happened.
Nagaland and Meghalaya voted on February 27. Tripura 10 days earlier on February 18. The fate of those who contested are now, to use a dog-eared cliché, sealed in the ballot boxes – nay, stored in digital codes in the electronic voting machines till March 3 when the votes will be counted. In the next few days, till that day of reckoning, plenty of crystal gazing is only to be expected.
The run-up to the elections in each of these three states has had their shares of drama, and in the case of Meghalaya, tragedy. Johnathone Sangma, a candidate of Nationalist Congress Party, NCP, ended up assassinated, though it must be added this was an isolated case of carnage and hardly widespread. None however was as sordid as the extended drama that unfolded in Nagaland. It began with the unseemly churnings in the ruling Naga People’s Front, NPF, marked by a triangular fight between three of its senior leaders giving way to coups and countercoups that left the state administration paralysed for months. Mass defections and counter defections also left the very idea of political loyalty redundant.
It was when the countdown to the election began that the search began for an escape route from the reputation earned out of these misdeeds. This came in the form of a call for solution to the intractable Naga problem before election. Such resorts incidentally are not the quality of just Nagaland politicians. In neighbouring Manipur, when politicians are under pressure or have to prove their commitment to their electorate, they too have resorted to harping on the sentimental issue of Manipur integrity. Other states too have their own unique crusade calls to camouflage their sins ahead of facing their people.
In Nagaland’s failed “solution before election” call, there is yet another more selfish pecuniary reason. Given the nature of electoral campaigns in the state where candidates are compelled to spend astronomical sums to garner support, prospective legislators would understandably be apprehensive of being asked to step down prematurely to accommodate a new government of former underground leaders if a solution does come about mid-term, long before they have had the opportunity to recover their election costs. Things however have taken a radically different turn, and after the BJP decided to defy the boycott, there was literally a dam burst and all who ever intended to contest were in the fray.
Thus 196 candidates from nine different parties and 11 independents staked claim to a seat in the 60-member state Assembly, with one candidate, former chief minister Neiphiu Rio and leader of the newly formed Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, NDPP, already elected uncontested after the withdrawal of candidature of his rival from the ruling Naga People’s Front, NPF, Chupfuo Angami . In the continued shifts of political loyalty, the NDPP and BJP reached a pre-poll alliance, the former fielding 40 and the latter 20 candidates. The NPF has 59 left in the fray and there are speculation that they may enter into a post poll alliance with the Congress with 18 candidates, of course depending entirely on whether the verdict is hung. There are also 25 National People’s Party, NPP, 13 JD(U), 11 independents, 6 Nationalist Congress Party, NCP, among others, to make possibilities of permutation and combination of alliance in the likely event of a hung Assembly, complex. It is quite likely the unseemly drama before the election that all witnessed will be repeated after the election results are declared.
Now let me attempt to answer the earlier proposition of the likely source of political legitimacy. Despite all the resorts of pulling out long archived lofty ideals and emotive contentious issues at the time of elections, there is a clear public cynicism about the ways of politicians and politics in most, if not all of the Northeast states. Quite paradoxically, however, this disenchantment notwithstanding, the same politicians and their politics continue to be relevant.
What is revealed in this intriguing drama is perhaps the very interesting characteristic of politics in general that French philosopher Michel Foucault termed as “governmentality”. In its bare essence, this postulate says politics works at two different levels. One immerses itself in the contest for lofty aspirations, dreams, ideals and visions. This is a medium politicians revel in, particularly in times of elections.
It must be conceded that many politicians do enter politics with a sense of mission and would be making their political pledges sincerely and with conviction, but for a vast majority these are done more out of the compulsions of making grandstands to impress and win the approval of their electorates. However, regardless of the levels of commitment of individual politicians, once in power the general tendency is for political promises of pursuit of lofty goals to be bogged down by the everydayness of the government’s more immediate responsibilities towards running their routine daily administrations.
What takes over thereafter is “governmentality”, carried forward by its armies of functionaries of the administrative establishment, starting from the clerks and office runners to top bureaucrats, each putting in their parts in the huge government administrative machinery. The lofty goals also get pushed away not just from administrative priorities but away from public mind so that it is no longer political ideals and visions, but “governmentality” which comes to be the source of government legitimacy. We have seen this happen many times before and it is still happening.
Intuitively our politicians probably know this too well, which is why they are not afraid of their plundering ways earning them disrepute, or making tall promises they cannot keep at the time of elections. They also have no scruples about getting to power by whatever means available, even if it means the ignominy of betraying original parties and colleagues. For once they are back in position of power, they will then be handling all the levers of “governmentality” and all will settle to the dull mediocrity of everyday governance once again, mending potholes, flagging off rallies, holding popular public durbars etc.
In Manipur for instance, the fact that the BJP won only 21 seats in the last elections but still managed to form the government has not affected the new government’s legitimacy at all, for the clout of power smoothens many creases. Whichever party comes to power in Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura, in all likelihood, it is the same phenomenon preparing to be repeated. The grandstands of politicians at election time to wash away all the despicable reputations earned through misdeeds in their last terms will no longer matter. Once installed back in power, the emotional power of these political ideals will recede, and then the politicians can look to draw their legitimacy for leadership from the fountainhead of “governmentality”.
(First published in Assam Tribune)
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