Ethno-nationalism: Good for politicians, bad for citizens

Patricia Mukhim

Since 1979, the political narrative in Meghalaya has been to create a fear psychosis that the “non-tribal” will take away everything – our land, our jobs, our businesses and our women (not necessarily in that order). Fear is a great motivating factor and it is easy to mobilize the gullible voters who don’t and have never believed in evidence-based claims.  The higher the pitch the more the votes! Alas when such people are elected and sit on the seat of power, all that they do is engage in their personal wealth creation projects, most often by allying with the non-tribal. What a farce indeed! And they believe we are not aware of those midnight deals that they strike with those they want us to hate.

Since 1979 we have come a long way. Its forty years now and the people of Meghalaya have never elected representatives based on reason. It has always been emotions…emotions…emotions. Hence, you have a turncoat like PN Syiem who not only jumps constituencies but also jumps parties and still gets elected. The fault is ours. Pynthor is not an uneducated constituency. It’s a constituency with a Bangladesh Colony and we know what that implies. It’s the socio-economic profile of the constituency that matters. Survival at all costs is the code adopted by a section of the electorate. And for such people, an MLA has to be one who caters to their basest instincts. They need to get proper papers and documentation to prove their citizenship. There are legislators dependent on such vote banks. They facilitate that but in the same breath they also shout, “Influx.” There is as yet no one to call the bluff of these self-serving politicians and I often wonder if such a day will arrive when they will stand naked and exposed.

Till date, the seasoned politicians and the wannabes who claim to be members of pressure groups with complicated acronyms, continue to feed the fear psychosis to the unquestioning public. Take the case of the rail project to Byrnihat. Who is stalling it? Who has a vested interest in not bringing the railways to the Khasi Hills? What is the locus standi of the protesting groups? Whose interests are they serving? The truck owners? The land owners in that area?  Have these pressure groups done a cost-benefit analysis? Why is the educated public refusing to speak up? What do they fear and who are they trying to humour?

Let’s face facts. Ethno-nationalism and the politics it has created for forty odd years has killed any job-creation opportunity. This politics is designed to stall all development initiatives. I am aware that Left Liberals in our state will argue at length about the kind of development models that suit or don’t suit Meghalaya. But let’s also face the reality that the populist economics both of the Left and Right have destroyed growth across the world and are doing that here in our country too. No wonder the Left Party today only rules one state. West Bengal got out on time before the economy is completely stifled.

Economies across the world are in turmoil hence we cannot live as if we are not affected by this economic recession. We have the examples of Venezuela and Mexico both of which were Left ruled and both of which are now economic disasters. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that Latin American growth could fall to 0.2 percent. Another example is that of Lebanon which is creating only 3,000 jobs a year, when it needs at least 20,000. Donald Trump the maverick US President has launched a trade war that has far reaching consequences for all nations including America. China’s President Xi Xinping believes that market reforms will not work for China and this has resulted in the economic slowdown of the Dragon country.

It’s therefore very frustrating to note that in the state of Meghalaya we don’t talk economics at all. What is our growth rate? Anyone knows? Where are our internals revenues coming from? We know we are facing a financial crunch yet our power holders (those in Govt) spend unthinkingly on luxury vehicles and other needless expenditure even as the Chief Minister keeps visiting Delhi to project the state’s precarious financial situation. We are not asking questions about how many jobs have been created by the present MDA Government. The truth is that entrepreneurship is not everyone’s forte. Some people don’t have business acumen; they need jobs in the different sectors of the economy but in which direction is our growth trajectory moving? Why is the Government continuing to look only at coal mining as a revenue generation channel? The State is led by a Wharton Business School graduate but where is that being demonstrated? Come to think of this! In the whole of Meghalaya only the urban centres have waste management systems in place. Beyond the district headquarters the people are left to fend for themselves. They burn plastic waste because people still don’t know how toxic that is for the environment. May I ask the Government as to which Department is tasked to look after waste management in rural Meghalaya? Or is waste just an urban phenomenon? If the Government is not thinking of these basic issues than what is it expending its energies on?

As it is, the people in rural Meghalaya feel a deep sense of helplessness. Agriculture is not in ship-shape. Road connectivity is so poor that bringing their products to a more lucrative market is impossible. Hence these days, trucks from Assam come right to the farm gate and buy all the farm products at a price decided by the buyer. Rural folks feel trapped and abandoned. Their representatives living in comfort in Shillong don’t actually know where their voters are hurting.  Voters are gradually realising that those who had promised to address corruption; to smash the old rules and usher in new ones are now actually chasing their own dreams of protecting their business interests and enriching themselves and their family members.

I sometimes wonder what it will take to set off a wave of anger against the elected. Today onions cost Rs 100 in Laitumkhrah market. Most vegetables are beyond the reach of the common woman. The recent National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data shows a huge dip in consumption levels hence the Modi Government is discrediting that data just as it does anything that does not meet with its approval and in the same manner that it has been denying the slowing down of the economy. Rural Meghalaya is marked by stark poverty and landlessness. Sadly, Meghalaya too lives in denial. Officials project one or two examples of farmer success stories and cover up what ails the rest of the farming population. This is unfair but you can’t blame the bureaucracy for the window dressing. We need to hold our elected MLAs accountable.

Tourism is Meghalaya’s unique selling point (USP). After the Meghalaya Resident’s Safety and Security (MRSS) Act, tourism is set to take a big hit since this Act is a replica of the Inner Line Permit. The populists who don’t run tourism resorts will shout in favour of the Act. The tour operators are silent onlookers. When will they react? When all those home-stays begin to shut down? Sorry friends but that will be too late! Populism never pays dividends. The only people who reap dividends from populism are politicians and the wannabe variety. People gain nothing from populist laws and legislations. Rather they lose out big time! The question to ponder on is- What has populism brought to ordinary citizens? Who has gained from it? And what happens when populism fails?

Incidentally, Meghalaya is supposed to host the National Games in 2022. Is that project on or has it been shelved? There is no buzz around the topic? Is it the money that is not coming in? Will someone please inform us the people?

Time will soon come when rural Meghalaya will question the populism they have been supporting. This working class population needs to thrive in the modern economy since they are actually the farm labourers who produce our food and without whom we would have to import all our grains and vegetables. They are integral to the economy. The urban educated elite in the urban centres are concerned about their democratic freedoms and have no problems about living in ethnically diverse pluralistic societies. This is the reality!

So what are our politicians thinking beyond giving doles and hand-outs to their electorate? Or do they think at all?

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