“We said the person who leads the country should be secular, should have a vision of inclusive growth. This country was constituted under a Constitution whose basic values, egalitarianism, pluralism and inclusiveness, together form what we call Bharat ka darshan or the idea of India. The question before us is: will the constitutional vision triumph or will we surrender to the ideology of division and polarisation?
“If the other vision succeeds, the country will disintegrate and the Idea of India will collapse. India cannot be destroyed; we will not allow it to be destroyed…”
— Nitish Kumar, June 20, 2013
When a political alliance re-emerges from the debris of an earlier break-up, the reunion unfailingly prompts a journalistic revisit to the past — to the time when the partners said the foulest things to each other and swore eternal hate and enmity. The ritual, meant to expose the hypocrisy on either side, was expectedly repeated when Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar walked out of his alliance with the Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal and walked into the eager arms of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah-steered Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
It had indeed been a bitter parting of ways between Mr. Kumar and the BJP in 2013. Mr. Kumar said he would disappear into the bowels of the earth but not engage with Mr. Modi. Such was his contempt for the then Gujarat Chief Minister that he felt it an affront even to take his name. In Mr. Kumar’s angry imagination, Mr. Modi occupied the same dark space as J.K. Rowling’s Lord Voldemort, “He who must not be named.”
Yet there was a standout piece in the swirl of accusations. Mr. Kumar’s June 20, 2013 speech, made in the Bihar Assembly while seeking a fresh vote of confidence, rose above petty grievances to raise fundamental questions about India and its future. The speech, extracts of which are quoted above, summed up exactly what it was that Mr. Kumar rejected when he ended his 17-year-long partnership with the BJP.
On one side, he said, was the plural and inclusivist constitutional vision, and on the other a destructive counter vision (obviously that of Mr. Modi) founded on the politics of division and polarisation. And he, Nitish Kumar, would not allow the latter to succeed: “Let me promise you: we will never allow the politics of division to destroy this country.”
Having treated his rupture with the BJP as a service to the country, as a personal sacrifice to prevent its ideological colonisation, worse its likely vivisection, Mr. Kumar today tells us that there is no issue more important to him than the corruption of Mr. Prasad and his young son and former Deputy Chief Minister, Tejashwi Yadav . Mr. Kumar’s decision to preserve himself rather than the country he was once prepared to die for shows, of course, that his affected moral superiority notwithstanding, he is cut from the same cloth as the rest of the political crowd. But this is not all there is to this speedy journey from secular absolutism to sectarian iffiness. If today Mr. Kumar’s conscience allows him not only to name “he who must not be named” but also embrace him in full view of the world, it is because he has realised that Prime Minister Modi is all there is to India’s politics. Any political future there is is only with him, especially with the Muslim vote, an earlier necessity, no longer a factor in ‘secular’ electoral calculations.
The fact that the BJP in power has pretty much followed the scary script Mr. Kumar envisioned in 2013 is obviously no longer a matter for concern. In the more than three years since Mr. Modi won a record majority, the BJP has moved closer and closer to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s’s dream of a Hindu Rashtra — not in the sense of a formal theocracy but in the sense of a nation Hindu in all respects, numerically, culturally and above all for being able to claim a 5,000-year-old civilisational legacy. This antiquity of culture and land demanded that all inhabitants acknowledge their common Hindu ancestry and agree too that this ancestry overrode any subsequent conversion to Islam or Christianity.
The Hindu aggression implicit in this formulation was always a threat to minority citizens but perhaps never more so than now with the ruling regime seen to be unapologetically majoritarian both in its politics and policies. Mob lynchings of mainly Muslims may appear to be unconnected to state policy but these in fact stem from a state-promoted prioritisation of cows over human lives and the proscription of beef as a food choice. The assertion of Hinduness is evident in all spheres, cultural, social and even individual, and in politics in the increasing and unconscionable marginalisation of Muslims. The BJP’s candidate list for this year’s Uttar Pradesh Assembly election did not have a single Muslim, signalling the arrival of Muslim-free electoral politics.
Corruption on the other side
This is the mirror opposite of the ideal Mr. Kumar held up in 2013. Even on corruption he has turned out to be on slippery ground with the surfacing of scams in BJP-run States, earlier in Madhya Pradesh and more recently in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh. It should be evident to anyone that the Vyapam recruitment scandal with its startling cash-crime-multiple murder angle hasn’t been sufficiently investigated. The BJP seems able and willing to explore alliances with parties unknown for their financial probity, among them the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Nationalist Congress Party. Remember Mr. Modi calling the latter the “Naturally Corrupt Party?” The Right to Information Act, which had thoroughly and ruinously exposed the United Progressive Alliance’s corruption, has been given a quiet burial.
Can it be Mr. Kumar’s case that Opposition corruption is corruption but BJP’s corruption is so much hogwash? That is an absurd argument. But that is exactly what Mr. Kumar has willed himself to believe, and with him an ever growing constituency of Mr. Modi’s supporters. The private TV channels have morphed into vicious Opposition-eating beasts. Ideally they would like to beam Mr. Modi’s activities 24 into 7. But that would mean sparing the Opposition, the decimation of which has to be a higher calling. The Modi government’s dismal record on the economy, the devastating consequences of demonetisation, a failing farm sector and the deteriorating situation on the borders have paradoxically all added to the popularity of Mr. Modi and established that people will believe the wildest untruth if it is wrapped in “nationalist colours”. This narrow nationalism is co-opting an ever widening circle of people, with dissenters shamed as traitors and worse. An astonishing number of people today believe Mr. Modi can at once defeat Pakistan and China.
Mr. Kumar has grasped the jingoistic popular mood and Mr. Modi’s unassailability for the foreseeable future. With his exit, the few and far between Opposition unity moves have collapsed with no guarantee of who will defect next to Mr. Modi’s side. The last doubt about the state of the Congress has been dispelled by the sweat it has expended on l’affaire Ahmed Patel, and Jairam Ramesh’s honest confession that the party is in an “existential crisis”
Indian politics is in a phase never seen before. The collective targeting of Opposition parties for corruption is an unseen first. Whether in 1977, 1989 or in 2011-2012 when the Anna agitation was at it peak, public anger was directed at the corrupt government, not the Opposition. Following its 1977 victory, the Janata Party government made every effort to pin corruption charges on Indira Gandhi who instead thrived in the hostile atmosphere. People saw it as a witch-hunt and brought her back.
Not happening today.
Vidya Subrahmaniam is Senior Fellow, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Chennai