Rhythms and rifts: The complex dance of democracy in Manipur's 18th Lok Sabha elections

Yenning *

In the vibrant fabric of democratic governance, the election process is often celebrated as a fundamental expression of civil liberty and participation. Dubbed the “dance of democracy,” elections embody a rhythmic, energetic, and dynamic celebration of citizen rights and responsibilities. This metaphor evokes the structured yet fluid movements of dance.

It encapsulates the essence of democratic engagement: lively, inclusive, and transformative. As we delve into the nuances of this democratic ritual, it’s crucial to examine how these principles play out in the real-world scenario of electoral politics, mainly through the lens of the recent 18th Lok Sabha elections in Manipur.

Here, the idealised “dance” faced interruptions that challenged the choreography of democracy, leading to a unique and controversial performance. Let us explore how this dance unfolded, revealing the complexities and challenges inherent in practising democracy in contemporary settings.

The phrase “dance of democracy” is a symbolic way to describe elections. There are several reasons for this comparison:

Dynamic and Lively: Elections are full of activity. Political parties, candidates, and voters all participate in campaigning, debates, rallies, and, of course, voting itself. This constant movement and interaction resembles the rhythm and flow of a dance.

Inclusiveness: Democracies are all about participation. People from all walks of life and backgrounds are encouraged to get involved in the electoral process. This inclusivity is like how a dance combines different elements to create a unified performance.

Competition: Elections are like contests. Political parties and candidates compete for power and the chance to represent the people. This competitive spirit is similar to the energy and drive dancers bring to their performances.

Expressing Choices: Voters use their ballots to express their preferences and opinions. Each vote is like a step in a dance, contributing to the final outcome.

Change and Transition: Elections can lead to significant government, policies, and leadership shifts. This potential for change, where the whole direction of a country can be altered by the vote, adds a sense of drama and excitement, just like a dance with surprising turns.

Celebrating Democracy: Finally, calling elections a “dance of democracy” emphasises the positive aspects of democratic processes. It highlights the freedom and rights citizens have to participate in shaping their own government through peaceful and democratic means.

Unfortunately, these ingredients were missing from the 18th Lok Sabha elections in Manipur because of restrictions imposed on campaigning, rallies and the nature of voting. If rumours are true, there were incidences of proxy voting, booth capturing, and armed interference.

As a result, there was a re-poll in 11 polling stations of the Inner Manipur Assembly Constituency, and a few more are expected in the Outer Manipur Assembly Constituency. The present unrest in Manipur has dramatically affected the mood of the electors.

Despite the limitations imposed by the circumstances, campaign strategies were predominantly executed on social media platforms. This digital arena became a furious vortex of promises and strategy, with candidates fiercely competing for the electorate’s attention. This intense scramble for visibility birthed many humorous memes and nicknames from the anxious and scrutinising public.

Many of the promises were audaciously unrealistic, much like promising the arrival of mythical unicorns. For instance, candidates promised to immediately rehabilitate internally displaced persons back to their original homes in an improbably short timeframe. Such claims, akin to vows made by magicians or godmen to conjure mythical creatures into reality, although striking, inevitably led to questions about their feasibility and damaged the credibility of those who made them.

In addition, some candidates ventured into making futuristic claims that envisioned a radically transformed Manipur, akin to the introduction of flying cars. During their campaigns, nearly all candidates blamed the current Manipur Government for purportedly undermining the state’s ideals.

Promises of immediate peace negotiations were made by candidates without considering the complexities of negotiating with unpredictable narco-terrorists who adhere to no known principles. The enchantment these promises created was quickly tempered by scepticism regarding their practical implementation, earning these aspirants the moniker of “Magicians.”

Utilising star power was yet another tactic deployed to influence voters. One candidate repeatedly shared tales of his encounters and agreements with influential figures, claiming ambitious plans like using fighter jets from the Indian Air Force to spray weedicide over poppy fields.

Another notable candidate, a charismatic communicator, captivated the public with his fiery rhetoric. His eloquence, albeit hard for the average person to decipher, resembled the expressive style of the famed orator Shashi Tharoor, albeit with a local twist.

The election also featured a colourful figure who could not vote in his name because he belonged to the Outer Manipur Assembly Constituency yet stood for election in the Inner Manipur Assembly Constituency.

Unrestrained by convention, he openly threatened to usurp the Indian Prime Minister’s position and even the symbolic “vacant seat” of the Manipur Maharaja. His bold, if not reckless, statements during a tense period of ethnic conflict prompted the public to dub him “Meidingu Wachoi” or “Blabbering King.”

Amid these vibrant characters was a famous film star whose calm demeanour and graceful interactions won him the affectionate title of “Mr. Gentleman.” Contrastingly, a former IPS officer and minister in the Manipur Cabinet, known for his sophisticated and composed manner, was called “Mr Suave” by some sections of the public.

The most reserved among the candidates was a decorated former army officer, whose reluctance to boast about his military exploits or engage in rhetorical skirmishes left him known as “Mr. Invisible.” Despite the array of caricatures and nicknames, each candidate sincerely endeavoured to represent the troubled state of Manipur in the Indian Parliament.

With the election concluded, the anticipation of who among these diverse contestants would secure a victory remains high. These candidates seemed to embark on a symbolic pilgrimage, invoking the blessings of Ibudhou Pakhangba, a revered primordial deity in Manipuri culture, in their oaths and promises to serve the electorate. While poignant, this invocation of divine support left observers like Yenning sceptical of their genuine spiritual commitments.

As the dust settles, the true impact of their promises and the future trajectory of Manipur’s political landscape remains to be seen, leaving the electorate and onlookers alike pondering the transformative potential of this “dance of democracy.”

The electoral process has ended, signalling a time for reflection and forward-looking aspirations. Elections, by their very nature, often create temporary divisions as different factions vie for supremacy through varying visions for the future.

In the context of this recent election, several candidates endeavoured to connect with voters by addressing the profound grief and hardship resulting from the ethnic conflict that has led to significant displacement and destruction of properties.

Whether these efforts to resonate with the electorate’s pain will translate into electoral success remains to be seen. The emotional toll on the populace is palpable, with many residents feeling deeply affected by the ongoing turmoil.

Adding to the complexities of post-election healing, there have been relentless violent incidents that exacerbate the already tense atmosphere. Since April 16, there has been a disturbing pattern of assaults on goods convoys, and a vital bridge on the National Highway has been destroyed.

Moreover, peripheral villages predominantly inhabited by the Meitei community have been subjected to ongoing armed attacks by groups identified as Kuki narco-terrorists and their affiliates. These attacks have not only resulted in the tragic loss of at least two lives but have also left several others wounded, including personnel from the Central Reserve Police Force.

These developments underscore the challenges that lie ahead in fostering peace and rebuilding trust among the communities. The post-election period offers an opportunity to address these issues head-on, striving for a resolution to heal the wounds inflicted by the electoral strife and the ethnic tensions that have flared. As the new parliamentary term will shortly begin, the focus must shift towards healing, rebuilding, and ensuring a stable and inclusive future for all residents of Manipur.

The symbolic “dance of democracy” captures the electoral processes’ dynamic, inclusive, competitive, and transformative nature. However, the recent 18th Lok Sabha elections in Manipur seemed to deviate from this metaphor due to restrictions, incidents of malpractice, and a lack of the usual vibrancy.

Despite these challenges, candidates resorted to various campaign promises and gimmicks, earning colourful nicknames from the public. These tactics, ranging from unrealistic promises to star power and verbal duels, added a touch of entertainment and satire to the electoral landscape.

However, beneath the caricatures and name-callings, each candidate sincerely aimed to serve Manipur and its people. Now that the election is over, it’s time to move forward, setting aside divisive narratives and focusing on defending Manipur’s territorial integrity and the cherished idea of Manipur that our ancestors envisioned.

The challenges faced during elections are temporary, but the unity and determination of Manipuri people to safeguard their heritage and identity are enduring.

* Yenning wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on April 30 2024.

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