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Elections in Meghalaya: Constituency managers versus visionary leaders

Patricia Mukhim

Every thinking voter in Meghalaya wants to see CHANGE in 2018. But it’s not the thinking elite that influence election results. Those who live desperate lives and see in their MLA a person with the wherewithal to pay for their needs during domestic exigencies are the ones who will determine whether a candidate wins or loses, because the latter far outweigh the former in terms of numbers. So to those who continue to cogitate about change in 2018, I would say, get real and stop believing in change. Yes there will be some change of faces but the government that will rule Meghalaya in the next five years beginning March 2018 cannot be very different from the present one.

Thos who labour on about change forget that every candidate has one goal: to win elections. All the rhetoric about public service is a lie. MLAs serve the public because they want to be elected or re-elected. Out of curiosity as to why people continue to elect rogues and seemingly purposeless politicians, I read the book called, “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation”, by Drew Westen. The author claims he wrote the book for those interested in how the mind works, how the brain works, and what this means for why candidates win and lose elections. He is also targeting readers interested in politics, psychology, leadership, neuro-science, marketing and law. The book is also for parties such as the United Democratic Party (UDP) who can’t figure out why their party isn’t able to win enough seats to form a government when the average voter seems to agree with the UDP’s position on most issues.

Westen says that candidates who proceed from the premise that people vote intelligently and from a very dispassionate mind and that they weigh the issues at hand, usually don’t win elections. There is no relation between logic and how the mind and brain actually work. Hence when campaign strategists start talking of a vision for Meghalaya, their candidates will invariably lose elections. Westen is a practicing clinician and has trained psychologists and psychiatrists for over twenty years in how to understand the nuances of meaning in what people say, do or feel. In working with patients if a psychiatrist/psychologist misses out on those nuances – if they misread what the patients may be trying to communicate, if they misjudge the patient’s character, if they don’t notice when their emotions, gestures, or tone of voice don’t fit what they’re saying, if they don’t catch the fleeting sadness or anger that lingers on their face for a few milliseconds as they mention someone or something they might otherwise not know was important – they lose their patients. In politics if a candidate misreads the exact same things they lose elections. Emotions are pre-eminent!   

In the 2004 Presidential elections of the US, Westen and his colleagues Stephan Hamann and Clint Kilts put together a research team to see what happens in the brain as political partisans that constitute about 80 % of the electorate get ready to vote. They studied the brains of 15 committed Democrats and an equal number of Republicans. The reason they could not study those with no ideological commitment was because it was hard to find such people especially as elections drew near. At the end of the study, it was found that voters respond to candidates who can move them to tears, laughter, compassion, anger and feelings of sanctity. They vote for candidates who can provide emotionally compelling examples of the ways they would govern and the principle issues they would stand for.

The candidates who “read” the emotional signals of their constituents and can show that they have been through the poverty and pain that their constituents experience are most likely to win because voters like to feel that the leaders they elect resonate with their experiences and are likely to be more empathetic to their needs. Hence when Sanbor Shullai the Shillong South MLA who distributed jobs to his constituents in the Assembly when he was the Deputy Speaker there, defends his nepotism by saying that he never violated any law because as MLA it is his duty to give as many jobs to his constituents, he is actually scoring brownie political points because that sort of statement resonates with the unemployed voters in his constituency. For those using the rational mind, what Sanbor Shullai has done is completely unethical and illegal but that is how elections are won. Hence if Sanbor Shullai, a man with unsavoury credentials, is pitted against opponents who believe that the electorate votes on logic and reason and will reward fair play and justice, then the opponents still have a lot to learn about how the political brain functions. Sanbor Shullai and his ilk represent the broad spectrum of dispossessed voters who live hand to mouth existence and although he has made his fortune from being a politician, these same people are still willing to bet on him! That’s the irony of politics. And what do political parties do? They too don’t care a hoot about the antecedents of a candidate. They will give the ticket to the wining horse, no matter how dirty their personal and political conduct is. This is what Drew Westen and his team found after years of research.

The moral of the story also is that only the educated and informed voter cares about issues and manifestoes. The rest, and they are the deciding factor, vote for a candidate because they are obliged to him/her for having stood by them at their hour of need, especially at the time of bereavement, of weddings of illness and other family emergencies. That is real-politik in India and if we believe otherwise we are deceiving ourselves. I know this will sound like a death knell to those who hope for change but as far as I can see how politics is played out in Meghalaya, the NPP might get the largest number of seats in 2018 and team up with the UDP and the BJP. The NPP has in its kitty the likes of the Dhar brothers plus more who had got the best and most cushy departments during the MUA -2 regime such as PWD (Roads) etc., and given us the most pot-holed roads ever. But the Dhar brothers are affluent and can finance their own elections and also the Party they are in. Then there are other seasoned political players in the NPP who also have made their bucks from being in the Congress. Why do we expect them to be any different? What change are we looking at?

Democracy has never been about public service. It has always been about serving the party and serving the self. Is it any wonder then that the judiciary is now taking on all executive functions? But for the judiciary the old Umsning road would have remained unattended. So too several other areas of governance would have remained untouched if the judiciary didn’t pull up the executive every now and again in our state of Meghalaya and in the country.  

I was having a conversation with a NEHU professor earlier on Thursday and as usual the topic veered towards elections. He too was cynical about the much anticipated change. His contention is that MLAs are not visionaries but only constituency managers. That’s what they have been voted for. People expect their MLA to be present at their time of grief and celebration. And that’s because we are a community that lays much store on a “big” person visiting our “humble” abode. That really means a lot to the voter. The voter hates an arrogant MLA with whom they cannot rub shoulders. Many of us may not have sought any personal help from our MLAs but there are hundreds of others who approach their MLAs for personal help and also get it!  And that’s how the MLA scheme comes handy.

So that’s it! Let’s not get our hopes up so that we will not be disappointed big time!          

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