By Benjamin Lyngdoh
“The politics of whataboutery is common now. It is so common that it has become a norm. The ones at the receiving end are the people. Factor this; while the government is involved in whataboutery it is washing away its hands of accountability. On the other hand, the people are observing all happenings like some play to which they have to applaud or at least comment.”
The term ‘whataboutery’ (which is commonly taken as informal and wordplay) is related to the more formal phrase ‘what about’. When ‘what about’ is used in written and verbal communication, it carries a lot of significance. It has meaning to the extent of being critical of someone or something. For example, when one says ‘what about the problem of drugs in Shillong’, it highlights the gravity of the challenge with a directed question on the addict, local governance, police, civil society, state government, etc. The question has to be answered specifically by those knowledgeable on the matter. It is about fixing responsibility. Someone is accountable for a given situation and has to give answers.
On the contrary, ‘whataboutery’ is the complete opposite of ‘what about’. It is about making a mockery of a serious life and death situation. This is because whataboutery refers to the dodging of questions and difficult circumstances. It involves escaping responsibility and accountability. It is about asking silly counter questions instead of giving direct answers. For example, a student asks a teacher as to how he/she can study better; well, instead of giving a direct inspirational answer the teacher instead details into his/her eating and sleeping habits. Even worse, whataboutery also involves digging up the past of the adversary simply to make one’s point with no intention of problem-solving. Today, Meghalaya politics is all about whataboutery.
The NPP likes to use a term when faced with a difficult situation. In many quarters it has become humorous content. It is called ‘examine/examining’. If it is taken as a classroom examination then the NPP would be at it forever without submitting the answer script for evaluation. Be it the shifting of the residents from Them Metor to a more suitable location, coal mining dilly-dally on rat holes and its alternative means of extraction, illegal extraction and transfer of coal, making public of the report on the death of Cheristerfield Thangkhiew, corruption in MeECL, ILP issue, inclusion of Khasi and Garo languages in the 8th Schedule, etc, the answer is whataboutery. There is no direct and specific response to any of the questions raised. It is all about buying time. Just delay, cajole and ultimately people will forget or become indifferent. Public memory is short and disillusionment is easy to come by. The ILP is an intriguing case. Now, even the central government is examining it. It is time for the people to get a clear-cut answer, be it a yes or a no. This is because the longer the delay, the more is the harm along communal lines. The recent cases of harassment and violence by boys on two-wheelers are a manifestation of this delay. It is more of a pressure tactic applied by the pressure groups. With growing indecision, come increased instances of intimidation and violence.
The coalition partners in the MDA government have turned into a spectacle. In truth, they themselves are just spectators in the coalition. Whatever is done by them has to be vetted by CM Conrad Sangma and DCM Prestone Tynsong. For example, in the recent spate of teachers’ protests across SSA, Ad-Hoc and contractual teachers, why did Education Minister Lahkmen Rymbui not take the lead in negotiation and problem-solving? Why was he dodging the problem? In the many cases of corruption and distortion of facts like the reply of Prahlad Joshi (Union Minister of Coal, etc) on coal extraction in Rajya Sabha, why are the coalition partners not raising a word of protest? The MDA government is being called a liar. It is a loaded term. Being called so should have been a reason for shame/concern. But no, nothing seems to matter. By all means, the partners are more of passengers. However, they do not mind as their eyes are set on legislative assembly election 2023. The UDP has gone to the extent of saying that they are viewing at leading a government post election. What about the issues of today? The partners themselves are involved in whataboutery by not raising questions. All that transpires are half-hearted statements like ‘we have told the government to check on coal mining problems, etc’. It is not good enough. It is a case of ‘you scratch my back and I will scratch yours’. The entire ruling dispensation is involved in a fixed-fight to turn a blind eye to the ills plaguing Meghalaya.
The politics of whataboutery is common now. It is so common that it has become a norm. The ones at the receiving end are the people. Factor this; while the government is involved in whataboutery it is washing away its hands of accountability. On the other hand, the people are observing all happenings like some play to which they have to applaud or at least comment. The crux of the issue dies without any discourses on the details of it and how it impacts upon lives. News is bombarded every day. Its frequency and quantum is too much for analysis. Alas, we just witness whataboutery around instances where TMC asks MDA about the hurriedness of solving the Meghalaya-Assam boundary issue. Well, instead of giving a genuine answer; the MDA simply says ‘What did you do when you were CM Mukul Sangma’. The result is that a fruitful debate on the entire issue is lost in the silliness of whataboutery. This whataboutery of the politicians is a cancer for the people. It is time that the people see through this facade and ask specific questions from the politicians. Do not let them go till a specific answer is received. The electioneering campaigning starts soon, this is the right time to enforce it.
There are two tenable ways of challenging whataboutery. First, the election manifesto. It tells the electorate what the party will do once it comes to govern. A person quipped that an election manifesto is good only as toilet paper. But maybe, it is time to change the narrative. This can be done by mentioning more than promises in a manifesto. A party would do well to give specific strategies on how to solve problems of unemployment, infrastructure building, law and order, etc. There must be no dodging or deceiving arguments. Second, conduct open platform debates. In Meghalaya, we hardly have open platform debates in the constituencies. All that is done is campaigning. The responsible citizens of every constituency should come forward and hold debates to be attended by all the contesting candidates. This is primarily where we can segregate the wheat from the chaff. The intention and strategies of the candidate can be assessed by the people. It helps in selecting a candidate come voting day. But factor this; since most of the Dorbar Shnong are affiliated and supportive of one candidate or the other, it would be wise for the debates to be conducted by independent citizens with no affiliation to any party.
In the end, whataboutery today is conveniently hidden behind the veil of democracy. When it is done, everything seems hunky-dory. In truth, whataboutery is a game the politicians play at the cost of the people. Wake up and smell the coffee!
(The writer teaches at NEHU; Email – [email protected])