Why Nitish’s latest defection is actually a desertion of an ideological offering which has run its course in the new, I-don’t-owe-you-nothing India.
There is no better pointer of the short-termism of our public debate than the fact that it is confined to the presumption that Nitish Kumar and his party’s mass defection from one political grouping to its ideological opposite means Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have sealed 2019. To argue the opposite, you will either have to be recklessly brave or drinking some dangerous moonshine sold illegally in Bihar. The real implication of this shift will last way beyond 2019.
It is how it signals a change in Indian politics and society, in short, public opinion. It also means the rise of a political giant more powerful and successful than Indira Gandhi. Don’t jump in protest saying Indira ruled more states, won three general elections. Because she had inherited a party already well-settled in power with little opposition. Modi won his, fighting against opposition within his (then) fractious party but also many ideological adversaries with large vote banks.
Now he and his party president control their party more strongly than Indira ever did. The opposition is at its weakest since 1952 (never mind its lower numbers in 1984-89 after Rajiv Gandhi’s sweep). The media is mostly and happily down on its knees, cheering from the sidelines, afraid to even ask a question like how is the RBI unable to count demonetised currency in a full nine months when ordinary human beings can produce another in that much time.
The judiciary, when not running Indian cricket, is engaged in such vital pursuits as teaching us unpatriotic half-wits respect for the national anthem, and now a national song, besides imposing a Rs 5,000-fine for defecating along the Yamuna. The only instance of constitutional defiance by the Supreme Court lately has been the striking down of the National Judicial Appointments Commission to protect its own freedom – to hire and fire its own. And some are complaining about a vice-chancellor asking for a souvenir tank to sit astride his unruly campus. We are fortunate he hasn’t asked for a police armoured car, if not a real tank with live ammunition on his unruly campus.
This is just a listing of facts as we see them at the end of what feels like a very long time in politics in Churchillian terms. Political analysis has to be divorced of the writer’s voting preferences, so we will refrain from calling it a good or a bad turn. But a turn it has been that dumps all existing assumptions, equations and linkages of our politics. Let us, therefore, only paint a picture of our politics post-Nitish, and after three years into the Modi-Shah project.
INDIA NOW has a new kind of political dispensation and a mood to match. Many of the values and ideas, some good, some not so good or obsolete, concepts of virtuosity and morality, and most importantly ideology, are now dead and cremated. It is tough to convince Indian millennials – an overwhelming majority of our voters now – of the virtues of secularism when every standard-bearer of the idea is a corrupt and controversial dynast. Or, the Left whose hypocritical idea of irreligious secularism is compounded by its globally failed economics.
It is impossible to peddle an idea of relaxed nationalism when your leaders have been raising questions over a catastrophic terror attack such as 26/11, speaking against death sentences to terrorists though confirmed by the Supreme Court, or calling the Batla House encounter fake although it took place under your own government’s watch and which gave the nation’s highest gallantry award to the police inspector killed. You might claim you have freedom of expression, but then also use it to speak the truth about your party’s leader.
How convincing will protests sound if the road leading to JNU was named after Savarkar or Golwalkar now? Remember, you named an auditorium in Jamia Millia after Edward Said, the road leading to it Shahrah-e-Arjun Singh. Or, your concept of pro-poor governance when all you managed to deliver were leaky, populist, vote-catching yojanas mostly named after your own ancestors. Check the great promise of social equality with the record of all the parties that would have constituted the fantasy of mahagathbandhan. Not one Muslim, Dalit or tribal leader has been allowed to rise, barring those leading their own mini-dynasties. And finally the commitment to liberalism had been reduced to this farcical opposition to Aadhaar, which was your own idea.
The fundamental mood change in India implied that what is virtuous in politics has been redefined by not one but two generations of voters. The past was rooted in politics of freedom movement. So self-denial and sacrifice, submission to a call of conscience, an exaggerated sense of political correctness are all dated. Today’s currency is power, and the ability to wield it without ever having to say sorry. Modi’s political CV tells you he passes this test more than any other political contestant today. Neither did he offer to resign, nor asked for anybody else’s resignation after the 2002 riots despite pressure from Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He ignored the Lalit Modi and Vyapam scandals with total nonchalance. Smriti Irani may have been moved to a less important position, but her rehabilitation is on. Want still more evidence of his approach: he hasn’t even fired the one man who has brought his government more embarrassment and ridicule than any dozen others: CBFC chairman Pahlaj Nihalani.
In my first comment on the 2014 election results I had said that the new Indian voter had a post-ideological, I-don’t-owe-you-nothing and what’s-in-it-for me mindset. BJP’s continuing success doesn’t mean that Indian secularism and liberalism has ended. Question it raises is, how deep-set was the belief we seemed to have earlier. It is more likely that it wasn’t too deep. So a large majority now see a justification for what they always believed, but were constrained from speaking out because of old-generation morality, political correctness or hypocrisies. The Modi-Shah BJP has relieved new India of that old baggage. And Indians are loving it.
At this point, no opposition leader or grouping has a counter to this. Congress has shrunk to nothing and will nearly die if it loses Karnataka. Amarinder Singh, in Punjab, will then find himself in a Nitish kind of pincer, alternately pressured and charmed by the Centre, and handling interference and suspicions of the high command. Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal will hold out for some time but won’t be able to keep the mighty BJP at bay. Kerala still has some time to go, but Congress will yield some space there to BJP.
Fair or not, it is inaccurate to call Nitish a defector. It might be more apt to describe his flight to BJP as a desertion, a flight-in-fright and then seeking asylum with the BJP. He had the realism to acknowledge the futility of a fight to the finish which could have ended only one way. He is a survivor durable enough to know it’s a changed, me-first, self and selfie-obsessed Indian voter. The slogans he used so far, especially socialism and secularism, have no sex appeal. He has no fresh ideas. So better be a colonial-style Indian Raja and cede sovereignty for power over your subjects. Sooner than later, most remaining opposition leaders will face the same choices: desert or die. Or if you have the imagination, find a marketable new proposition.