Did we make a serious mistake in 2018? Whither 2023
By Patricia Mukhim
Elections are eight months away but the knife-sharpening business has begun. Those used to reflecting on the current state of affairs and the political circus happening now where we have lost count of which MLA/MDC is in which political party, have developed either a deep sense of cynicism and hopelessness or are injected by some kind of adrenaline to want to change voter behaviour in 2023. Such is the disenchantment for the politics and politicians of today that even at funeral houses people no longer discuss politics. And if they do, it is with deep disgust. In this situation where the people of Meghalaya by and large seem to be engulfed by a sense of hopelessness it would be intuitive to know why this level of pessimism. What did people expect from the Conrad Sangma led MDA Government and what was not delivered?
There is in Meghalaya today a sharp split along education lines which David Brooks the New York Times columnist calls the ‘Diploma Divide’ leading to a nightmare aberration. One side of the divide votes for immediate financial gains. The other votes with an eye for more long term gains taking into account the future of their children and grandchildren. Alas! Although the literacy rate in Meghalaya is over 70% it does not necessarily mean that the literate can also think long term. For the large majority suffering from lack of access to healthcare, a timely assistance by way of an ambulance or payment of medical bills by the MLA/MDC will earn the lawmaker eternal gratitude. It was quite a revelation for me to learn from the MDC of Rambrai-Jyrngam constituency that he spends an average of Rs 70,000 – 80,000 to pay for the ambulance bill every month. People from West Khasi Hills or other distant districts all want to come to Shillong for treatment. And mind you they won’t go to Civil Hospital or Ganesh Das but to the private hospitals. Why? A public representative said people who are seriously ill know that if they go to Civil Hospital they will not come out alive. Every so often the MLA/MDC also has to pay the hospital bills at these private hospitals. Such beneficiaries are eternally mortgaged to their patron saint.
What the public of this state has never questioned is – Why is healthcare so pathetic? Why are doctors not available at the PHCs every day? Why are medicines not given free to the poor? The health Insurance does not go too far if the health status of the family is bad which is usually the case when people suffer continued anemia and malnutrition. I would like to ask Health Minister, James Sangma if he or his family members would risk being treated at the Shillong or Tura Civil Hospital for any ailment. What prevents people from asking these pertinent questions from the Government in power? Why do we take things lying down? When will we ever rise to claim our rights and not feel that the government is doing us a favour?
Coming to Education, Meghalaya with thousands of agitating teachers, and poor infrastructure in the rural areas and with no monitoring by the District Education Officers as to the attendance and quality of teaching, the fate of our students is in the doldrums. Parents who earn a fair amount quickly shift their children to private schools where teaching is a shade better or send them to Shillong at great cost to themselves. How long can this go on? Why do parents not form an association to fight for the rights of their children to quality education? This is where faith institutions come in. Is it not the role of churches and other faith institutions to empower people to question the power holders? Why is the church leadership so subservient to politicians? Why do they love to rub shoulders with politicians instead of standing between the gap on behalf of their congregation? Why do church leaders not teach people to question large scale corruption and to use the Right to Information? Why are they only against legalised gambling? Is corruption and the deprivation of a functioning health care system and good education not equally bad?
What the politicians have done and are doing is to keep people perpetually dependent on their largesse. Hence they don’t think it important to beef up healthcare and education or to build state of the art roads and an agricultural value chain that will not make farmers dependent on the middle-men. As long as people are dependent on politicians for basic needs which ought to be taken care of by the governance system, the politicians will have them where they want them. That’s how politicians win elections. So when we say that a particular MLA is good at servicing the constituency what we mean is that the MLA is able to pander to the personal needs of the constituents. Many MLAs misuse the MLA scheme since there is no strict monitoring on how the money is spent.
While discussing politics and how it works in Meghalaya one was told that the voters today expect an aspiring MLA to demonstrate his spending power even before he/she contests the elections. What is it that has turned the electorate so avaricious and calculating? They have learnt with time that once elected an MLA hardly delivers so they demand that he show what all he can give before the elections. But do the voters ever wonder where that money comes from? The Bible says, “The love of money is the root of all evils.” In Meghalaya this is so well demonstrated. It just goes to show that there is a huge chasm between what is preached in churches and what is practised in real life.
For most people Power is somehow elsewhere with the malevolent forces who are somewhere out there and who will stop at nothing. For a long time politicians used fear of the outsider and pitted themselves as protectors from that outsider. Fear revives its own ideology which gets us fearful people in the binary of the oppressor and the oppressed. Fear induces a herd mentality and we begin to vote for someone who makes a hero of himself until we realise that the hero has feet of clay.
The question before us today is whether between now and February 2023 the voters who have been engaging in so many if’s and what’s and why’s and wherefores would not have reached a point of exhaustion and whether they can still get over their fatigue, cynicism and timidity and take their own sides in the fight. Let’s not forget that inflation has just made life that much more difficult for the 33% of poor people (BPL) in Meghalaya. The MDA Government has not made any attempt to reduce the affliction of this category of people and will wait for the last month before elections to shower temporary largesse on them which will play the role of an opiate.
The sad reality is that we complain about the terrible choices we make in each election cycle but never organise enough or are imaginative enough to offer ourselves the alternatives that present themselves by way of fresh sets of faces that offer to serve us without buying our votes. It is time to vote with our eyes wide open. It is time to throw out those who have turned the entire political and governance process into a “for profit” activity without fear of retribution. Until about ten years ago there was that floor of decency – a basic minimum standard of behaviour to be an accepted member of society. Today what is outrageous – such as a leak developing in a building (ISBT) inaugurated by no less than the Union Home Minister less than six months after it was made functional, as ‘normal.’ If we tolerate this and the sunken bridge over the Mawlai-Mawiong bypass then we are tolerating political crimes that have touched the lowest levels of indecency.
Today we need to ask the right questions from the politicians who have represented us for the last four years plus. We have to do that to secure our future. We have reached a ‘Now or Never’ phase in our political journey. We need to act and defeat crass opportunism and greed of the elected.