By Pradip Phanjoubam
It has unfortunately once again become a fashion. Another dangerous flawed procedural trend of the Okram Ibobi government has relapsed to where it once was before being discontinued in the face of harsh but well meaning media criticisms. A day before the Cabinet meeting last Friday, the entire agenda proposals for the meeting was leaked to the media. By doing so the government probably thinks it is being transparent and democratic. If so, let it think again. No doubt the government was being transparent, but it should have known better, in matters of governance untimely transparency can do more harm than good. If this was not so, rather than an in camera Cabinet meeting, the government might as well have held a public rally to discuss and decide on its policy strategies, some of which are sensitive and emergent in nature.
The dangers should be obvious to anybody. The foremost of these is that it would encourage lobbies of myriad vested interests to try and influence government decisions while they were in the process of being made. In a land notorious for unholy nexus between contractors and the executive wing of the government in their collaborative plunder of public funds, this development can only compromise the integrity of the governance process. Hopefully the government agrees and is a little more careful about where it is appropriate be open and where discreet.
In reflecting on issues like this, one is reminded of the wisdom in the insistent emphasis scholars and leaders, such as B.R. Ambedkar, laid on the procedural nature of democracy. This is quite in contrast to the much repeated rhetoric that democracy is about translating the aggregate of public aspirations into government policies, therefore all governance intent should be thrown open to the public from the start. At face value, there seems nothing wrong with this statement. Freedom is indeed what democracy as a political system is purportedly designed to assure its subjects. However, the problem is in the method chosen to achieve this objective.
Let me choose the convenience of metaphors to negotiate this tricky proposition. Ambedkar’s emphasis that democracy is a procedure, therefore the need for constitutional norms to define it and its nuances is underscored in a movie of the 1980s – “Ten Commandments” – and I must add, quite lucidly. The movie is based on the Biblical tale of Moses liberating the Israelites from slavery under the Egyptian Pharaoh long before Christ was born. It is apt that the story of Moses is about the importance of law, for in the Biblical jurisprudence, the bases of all laws are the Ten Commandments, dictated to Moses by God himself.
In the movie, there is a particular episode in which Moses leaves the freed Israelite slaves at the base of Mt. Sinai, on their way back to Israel under his leadership, and climbs the mountain to meditate. On the mountain, he encounters God in his avatar as a Burning Bush. When a voice emanates from the Burning Bush, Moses is startled and scared, and asks the Burning Bush, “Who are you?” and then comes the famous enigmatic answer “I am who I am?”
The mystic beauty of the representation of God in this episode is beyond words. Unlike in many Eastern religions, in particular Hinduism, God is always given a tangible form in Christianity, therefore not beyond definition or description. The image of God also normally is normally associated with the form and substance of man, after all, according to the Bible, God made man in his own image. I am not a Bible expert, but from my limited readings, God as the Burning Bush on Mt. Sinai, is perhaps the only time the depiction of God deviates from the Biblical norm. Here God is formless, just as the flame is formless. But in a paradoxical way, this formlessness of the flame is in itself a form. Then the enigmatic answer “I am who I am?” reinforces this mystic idea of form in formlessness.
In Hinduism and other Eastern religions, Sanamahi not the least, this idea of form in formlessness is nothing unusual. There is also a novel and beautiful way the impossibility to sum up God as anything tangible, is depicted. In this strategy, the intangible is given an intellectually tangible definition by denials. Is God the sky? No. Is God fire? No. Is God water? No. Is God man? No. Is God the Sun? Is God nothing at all? No. Is God everything? No… No. No. No… God thus is nothing that we have known or can ever imagine. Yet in the mind’s eye, in the never ending denials, the picture of an infinite phenomenon, far beyond ordinary comprehension, but all the same very much a reality, emerges. This intellectually constructed image where there is no image, most would agree, is supremely beautiful. It is in this spirit that in many indigenous religions, God is often represented by stone, a tree, a pot. In Sanamahi it is by just a simple, round, brass plate. In the simplicity of these depictions, an infinite more than what is actually apparent is said. This is also what the Burning Bush that Moses encountered on Mt. Sinai.
This idea of form in formlessness has also been explored in art. The fascination of many artists who paint still life with glass wares is one. Glass wares by their transparency are formless, yet they also in an ethereal sense, possess form. Other arts have also similarly tried to give form to void. The Jain deity, the Mahavira’s image is often depicted as a cutout on a metal plate, so that the figure is a void, yet the void has a definite form of a meditating human figure. The empty figure is also filled by anything in its background so that it merges and becomes whatever is placed in its background.
To leave come out of this digression into a short but interesting contemplation of the mystical and poetic world of the supernatural, and return to the interpretation of democracy, which was exactly where we were a few paragraphs earlier, in the movie under discussion, after he receives the Ten Commandments from God, Moses returns to the Israelites camping at the base of the mountain and finds them in hedonistic revelry and sinful self indulgences. When Moses confronts them and reprimands them for their ways, one in the crowd shouts back at him “we want freedom”.
Moses’ answer was fascinating. He said: “There can be no freedom without the law.” This is exactly what B.R. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian constitution was saying when he insisted that there is no other democracy, and no other freedom, than the constitutional one. It is only defined norms and laws which can guarantee democracy and freedom, and without these, there can only be chaos and anarchy. These defined norms must of course be flexible and amenable to changes to accommodate the inevitable winds of epochal changes that mark different eras, but even these changes must be by defined and established procedures.
Well known journalist and writer of Indian origin, now an American citizen, Fareed Zakaria quotes a democracy researcher in his book “Future of Freedom” who made a very interesting comparison between the American and French models of democracy. The two democracies are about the same age, both having taking off after the American and French revolutions respectively. The researcher points out that in the 250 years of life of these two democracies, while the French democracy has changed systems five times, two of these markedly quasi-dictatorships, the American democracy has remained constant and stable.
What then is the difference? He says French democracy, founded on the motto of the French Revolution of “Freedom, Equality, Fraternity”, places absolute faith in the goodness of men. It approach is to guarantee freedom to the individual absolutely and this empowerment would automatically result in justice. The American democracy on the other hand, as Zakaria argues, rested on a suspicion of power, much in line with the thought of, James Madison, its fourth President and theorist behind the American constitution. At the time the American constitution was being written, Madison is to have famously said: “If men were angels, there would be no need for governments”. The implication is, since men were not always good, they cannot be trusted absolutely with power. The American constitution therefore is designed check power concentrating in any single individual or institution. Sometimes this would be by apparent limiting of freedom. For instance, in one House of the American Congress, all States, the biggest California and the smallest Arizona included, have equal representations. This is not per se democracy. The American constitution also provides for life appointments of many heads of institutions capable of checking the executive, for instance Supreme Court judges, Federal Reserve chairman… etc. This again is not democracy, but it serves the democratic purpose of being independent of interference of the executive and therefore can be its effective counterbalance.
The point I am laboring to make is, a free for all situation where everybody and anybody is free to do whatever he or she please cannot by any stretch of imagination be defined as freedom. Freedom needs the law and established norms to give it meaning. The caveat of course is, since the law and freedom are so vitally interlinked, it is also of utmost importance that only good laws are made while bad ones are discarded. Let the Manipur government be also a little more prudent about which matters of its policy making process are best made freely available to the public, and other areas where it should be more discreet and reserved. Agendas for Cabinet meetings certainly, many will agree with me, should not be revealed before the meetings are through.