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On being a Peoples’ Representative

Patricia Mukhim

This article is a humble submission that it is not easy to walk in the shoes of an MLA. To be one, you require extraordinary leadership qualities which includes being a ‘mindful’ leader who has time for daily introspection and yet plunge into the daily grind of meeting constituents whose needs are as varied as a the biodiversity in a virgin forest. They are like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs! Sitting and listening to an MLA is a learning experience. And I am talking here of Jemino Mawthoh, a friend and person I respect because of the clarity of his thoughts and his personal and political conduct. But native wisdom would tell us that it is futile trying to transform political behaviour if you do not have a critical mass of people with the same objectives.

Elections are round the corner and there are several aspirants wanting to claim political space. Each person seeks a different comfort level with his/her MLA. Every person will weigh the pros and cons of voting a particular candidate based on their personal experiences. Sometimes families differ on who they vote for. And unlike Nagaland where the village headman votes for the entire village, in Meghalaya we are hopefully more democratic. The state of Meghalaya as indeed the region, the country and the world is desperate for great leadership. But in our state the very word “leadership” needs drastic deconstruction and reconstruction. For a long time people have been led to believe that someone who has led a pressure or interest group is a natural leader, although that person may not have the qualities of head and heart that leadership entails because such groups don’t promote accountability for the actions of their leaders or followers.

So yes, all around us we see and meet people with private struggles and secret dreams, personal demons and public virtues, deep wounds and unique gifts and above all, a deep yearning to really matter. MLAs meet such people on a daily basis. It is a great attribute that they still maintain their calm and are able to deal with the spate of demands, most of them related to personal needs. And yet, the reason why people approach their MLAs for personal needs is because they have reached the end of the road. Or so one would like to believe! There is a system in place which is meant to deliver these goods and the government has the resources which an MLA does not. So it must be the aspiration of the MLA to push the government to deliver, rather than appease the constituents and act God.

In this respect one finds there is very little scrutiny by MLAs of how the government functions. Look at the daily newspapers. Do we see an MLA trying to sort out the mess in the PWD, PHE, Power, Health, and Education Departments etc., and unearthing the wrongs that have persisted in them? And what about political parties? How many scams have the UDP or HSPDP unearthed in these four years? Or are we trying to suggest that all is well? Or is this because the Opposition is a government in the waiting so there is a cunning resistance to expose government malfunction?

But political change is what Meghalaya needs. We can no longer have a business as usual attitude to politics. Alas! Politicians like everyone else are immune to change even while time demands change. This is where the goals don’t converge!

Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan writing about immunity to change says, “Desire and motivation are not enough to change even when it is literally a matter of life and death because of the internal mechanisms that make humans highly resistant to change.” He cites a landmark study which showed that even after suffering a stroke or developing coronary heart disease, only one in seven patients will change their smoking, exercise or eating habits. I have friends with these infirmities and know how difficult it is for them to stick to a strict diet or to get out and exercise. But I will not judge them. It must be a hell of a task to change especially eating habits! So is it futile then to expect political change? Or is change easier suggested? Are those of us who suggest change ready to face the pain it entails?

Kegan says we resist change because our mind acts as an immune system to protect us from the psychological trauma and danger that sudden and drastic changes can bring. Unfortunately this same system meant to protect us from negative changes can also prevent us from making significant positive changes. Kegan says one of the strongest sources of resistance to change is our firmly entrenched self-identity. He cites the example of a heart patient who stops taking prescription drugs because it makes him feel old. One patient, in fact told him that he stopped taking medication because he was only 58 years old and in the prime of his life and not an ‘old man with one foot in the grave.’ For that man, taking a daily pill threatened his identity as a healthy and younger man! This sounds amusing but it’s how many of us react to huge doses of prescription drugs.

To get over this identity-based resistance and I know as a society that we have many biases that prevent us from looking to the future which also means changing our way of doing things, Michael Bunting in his book, “The Mindful Leader,” suggests that mindfulness is the single greatest antidote to identity-based resistance to change because this practice teaches and enables us to let go of our self-identity (much of which we have constructed from past experiences and prejudices since the time we were hunter-gatherers) and truly know ourselves and enhance our self awareness as we observe the changes throughout our lives. Mindfulness releases us from the need to identify ourselves in rigid and inflexible ways. Mindfulness takes us out of the prison where we are taught to cling on to transient and intangible thoughts in order to find security. That’s how behavioral change is wrought in our lives and that is why it is so difficult. Most of us have been in training sessions where drug addicts or alcoholics are told categorically that if they don’t give up their habits they would have a limited life span or where women are told to plan their families to get out of the poverty syndrome. But the trainings glide like water over a duck’s body.

Behavioral change is tough and that is why we need leaders because they are expected to have enough experience to lead all of us through change, one step at a time. When we make behavioral change we are challenging deeply held habits, particularly the dysfunctional ones which develop over time in our psyche in order to shut out pain and problems instead of facing them. But all this, Bunting says from years of experience, can be overcome by mindfulness. So what is mindfulness the reader might well ask. The Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The behaviour of leaders has enormous impact on those they lead and the more senior they are the greater the impact. Leadership is both a privilege and a burden. It is incumbent on leaders to lead from a centre of wellness and non-reactivity. Leaders set the tone for the entire team when they are calm, confident, open and relaxed. They spread that same feeling in their followers. Similarly when leaders are stressed, fearful and closed-minded they also spread those same feelings around. Mindfulness is to be here and now; to deal with the present and not be overly worried about the future. Insecurity in leaders is a bad trait because they tend to promise what they can’t deliver and they make bad judgments. Also they lead their followers downhill! 

As we head to the polls in early 2018, what sort of leaders are we looking for? There are many insecure souls around looking to enter the portals of fame – the State Assembly – to secure their own futures. Are we going to invest our trust and votes on them? The choice is ours!                                                 

 

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