After endless struggle and decades of disappointment, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi inaugurated Meghalaya on the 21st of January 1972, as a full-fledged State to much joy and celebration. From then on, Meghalaya has been reaping the benefits of statehood which came about from the tireless work of our statehood hill leaders.
But 52 years after the creation of Meghalaya, several questions still linger. For instance, have our leaders really lived up to expectations? When, if ever, is it justifiable for a politician to break a promise? Are campaign promises really promises, or are they just musings about the things that candidates and parties might like to do if given the chance? And finally, should lying and deception in Meghalaya politics be treated as an ethical offence?
This last question is a pivotal one. Consider an MLA or MP who has engaged himself in some wrongdoing. Should he reveal this? If he admits his guilt, voters will know he is guilty, but may think him honest. What if he denies wrongdoing? If he is caught, he will be seen as both guilty and dishonest; if he is not caught, he will be seen as both innocent and honest.
As long as honesty is not too important relative to innocence (which is likely if the scandal is important), denying is better than admitting if he is not caught, but worse if he is — denying is more risky than admitting. How might this decision be affected by a politician’s political security? Suppose a guilty politician’s reelection chances are marginal prior to the scandal. If he admits to wrongdoing, he will lose any hope of reelection. He would have to lie, and hope he is not caught, to have any chance of reelection.
On the other hand, if a politician is relatively secure, he may be able to survive his wrongdoing provided he is honest about it. However, he may not survive if voters learn about both his wrongdoing and his attempts to cover it up. Admitting will maximise his reelection prospects. Aside from this, people are more likely to lie if innocence is more important than honesty. For example, a politician whose polling tells him that his electorate can forgive wrongdoing, but not being lied to, is more likely to admit to his mistakes. Finally, there is the obvious point that the higher the probability that a lie will be caught, the higher the less attractive lying is.
When our honourable Chief Minister says that the economy is creating jobs for the youth and that the unemployment rate in the State stands at 1.8 percentage points, Meghalaya isn’t really feeling the joy, because — believe it or not — politicians like Mr. Sangma are selectively quoting numbers that are outdated and make it appear the economy is doing better than it really is.
We don’t know for certain how many people are employed because no one counts them. The Bureau of Labour Statistics estimates the number of unemployed based on a random sampling of the population. In itself, this isn’t a problem. Sampling is a well-established method of estimation when it is too time-consuming or expensive to count every single person.
The problem arises when politicians like Mr. Conrad pretends that the estimate is an exact measurement. Each month, more people join the working age population than the ones who retire or die. Consequently, the economy needs to add thousands of jobs a month just to keep up with population growth. The problem arises when politicians like Conrad Sangma pretend that adding more jobs means there are fewer people out of work.
We think of people as being either employed or unemployed, but there is a third classification: non-employed. If you don’t have a job but are looking, you are unemployed. If you take a break from looking, perhaps because you keep coming up empty, you become a “discouraged worker” and classified as non-employed. The “labour force” is the number of employed and unemployed people. The non-employed people don’t count. The problem arises when our honourable Chief Minister Shrimaan Conrad Kongkal Sangma pretends that a lower unemployment rate means that more people are working.
Suppose there are 1500 people in our economy — 800 have jobs, 200 do not have jobs but are looking, and the remaining 500 do not have jobs and are not looking for work. The 1000 people who have jobs or are looking for jobs comprise the labour force. The unemployment rate is 20 per cent because 200 people out of the 1000 people in our labour force are unemployed. If 100 of the unemployed people give up looking for work and become the 600th person in the non-employed category, our labour force drops to 900. Now, 800 people have jobs, 100 do not have jobs but are looking, and 600 do not have jobs and are not looking for work.
The unemployment rate drops to 11 percent because only 100 out of our labour force of 900 people are unemployed. The number of employed people hasn’t changed, but the unemployment rate fell because someone stopped looking for work. But our MLAs treat this as “clear evidence” that “their laws and policies” are “improving” the unemployment rate.
The truth is, politicians here in Meghalaya just can’t help lying; much of the decline in the unemployment rate is due to people giving up looking for work and the official unemployment rate has fallen largely because we’ve stopped counting large numbers of jobless people. These numbers should be alarming to the general public, but for some reason the issue fails to attract public interest.
So, in my view, I feel there are at least three reasons to formally acknowledge lying and deception in Meghalaya politics as an ethical offense. First, politicians here might campaign more responsibly, and choose their words more carefully in general, if they knew they might have to explain any discrepancies and inconsistencies at some later date.
No MLA or MP would want to be the subject of an ethics investigation. Second, if politicians were to explain why they broke promises or withheld information, the exercise would have significant educational value for the public. I understand that not all broken promises start out as lies and not all modifications of the truth are malicious.
I also understand sometimes politicians make promises with genuine intent to see them through, only to learn later that circumstances prevent their fulfillment. In these cases, the public would benefit from knowing the reasons for the change of plan. It would force citizens to acknowledge the complexity and unpredictability of the policy process and the very real constraints that politicians face when allocating resources.
Although voters always have the next election as a chance to remove an MLA or MP who fails to meet expectations, accountability between elections is weak. Politicians can avoid giving answers and defence until the next campaign. This would change if politicians were forced to answer for broken promises and other variations on deception.
Every five years, citizens of Meghalaya are treated to stories of how stimulus spending and quantitative easing have brought in development in Meghalaya, created jobs and employment opportunities for the youth and how the great leaders who brought us these wondrous gifts deserve to be re-elected.
I’m sure this coming election will be no different. We the people of Meghalaya have been exploited enough; politics in the State truly is a mess! We have leaders who can’t or shouldn’t be allowed to lead. We endure governments that lie, and seek to undermine our democratic values; and we are confronted with policies that serve the interests of the privileged few.
The ugly truth is politicians here in Meghalaya are all the same; they promise to bring in more public buses even when there are still no flyovers. But this is not just about Conrad Sangma or his sidekicks. In the past, people like D. D. Lapang, S. C. Marak, E. K. Mawlong, Flinder Anderson Khonglam, J. Dringbell Rymbai, Donkupar Roy and Mukul Sangma whose de facto executive authority had once upon a time rested comfortably on their trusted shoulders, had for years, along with their council of ministers (who are collectively responsible to the Assembly) done nothing but lie and loot.
(The author is a teacher and social worker. He resides at Mawlai Nongkwar, Shillong – 8)