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Mainstream, VOL LV No 44 New Delhi October 21, 2017

Secularism is not an Ideological Compulsion for Nitish

Monday 23 October 2017

by Arun Srivastava

Defending his action to break the mahagath-bandan and forge a new alliance with the BJP, the Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, claimed on the floor of the Bihar Assembly that he was the tallest secular leader in contemporary India and dared other leaders to prove their secular credentials. He even asked the leaders not to use secularism to hide their corruption and corrupt practices. To prove his point that he was the only secular leader in India, he recalled: “Remember I had reopened the Bhagalpur riots cases and increased the compensation amounts to victims.”

His assertion, nevertheless, did not make clear whether his bragging had some element of realism and political rationality; but one thing was clearly perceptible that: the new alliance of the JD (U) and BJP would disseminate a new verbiage “Hindu Secularism” to the Indian political system. After what he did on July 26, 2017, people have refused to subscribe to the view that he is a secularist. If some leaders have been using secularism to conceal their corrupt practices, Nitish was exploiting it to capture power. For him, the ideological implication of secularism and communalism has no relevance.

In the 1995 Assembly elections he had entered into an alliance with the Naxalites, the CPI(ML). During those years he nursed the feeling that the CPI(ML), with its wide network and strong base, would reach him to the power house. But the fundamental contradictions between his support-base of junker peasants and the CPI(ML)’s landless poor peasantry and proletariat crashed his unethical edifice. Before entering into an electoral alliance with the CPI(ML) he could have understood that two divergent social forces, having deep contra-dictions, cannot come together. But he failed to make out the political paradigm of his move. After more than 25 years now, he has held the hand of the Right reactionaries and communal BJP.

Nitish can go to any extent to fulfil his ambition. No doubt for the saffron party secularism has been a pariah and a nasty word which they use to abuse a person they hate and despise. Their patriarch, L.K. Advani, had coined the word “pseudo-secular” to insinuate and malign the secular people. Nevertheless, Nitish has made it feasible for them to adopt the new phrase ”Hindu Secular and Secularism”.

The recent political developments make it abundantly clear that the Sangh leadership will stretch itself to any extent to achieve its mission. There is nothing they cannot do in their endeavour to capture power. They claim the BJP of being different but they have been using all the dirty tricks the Congress and other parties had been resorting to earlier. What is really interesting is that their murky actions have the sanction of their supporters and cadres. They perceive these as morally correct.

It is obvious that Nitish had been preparing his ground for the switch-over for months to strike at Laloo, which he did once the NDA got its own man as the President of the country. Lingering apprehensions were there in the minds of the central BJP leaders on the attitude of the former President towards this volte-face by Nitish; that is why they deferred the execution till Ram Nath Kovind took over.

Nitish Kumar betrayed secularism, if not the secular forces, but in the process, in fact as a boon in disguise, has gifted a young and dynamic secular face in the form of Tejashvi Yadav. The way he lambasted Nitish on the floor of the Bihar Assembly while speaking on the confidence motion moved by Nitish Kumar on his government, made it abundantly clear that Nitish, Sushil Modi and Narendra Modi have erred in the political assessment of this young lad of 29 years.

Tejashvi is certainly not Laloo Yadav or Nitish Kumar. His speech reflected that he is far away from the caste nuances and is not a hypocrite. Usually politicians avoid using hard words even against their sworn enemies as they are not sure on which turning they will come face to face and would need the help of the other. But Tejashvi was unsparing when he sought to know from Nitish on the floor of the House: “Did you not feel ashamed at sitting by the side of Sushil Modi?” Certainly by any standard this was harsh. Even some of the JD(U) and BJP legislators had described the words as unparliamentary and had requested the Speaker to expunge those from the proceedings. The words came from a boy who till hours back used to address him “chachaji” (uncle).

Behind the façade of targeting Laloo, the BJP and Nitish were actually aiming at Tejashvi. This was clearly manifest in the approach and attitude of Nitish. While he had no moral and political qualm in seeking and surviving with the help of Laloo Yadav who is already a convicted guy, he was finding it difficult to work with Tejashvi against whom the CBI had filed a simple case of money-laundering. Tejashvi is yet to be charged. In fact the BJP had come to assess the political and administrative potential of this young chap. In him they were seeing a potential challenger to their political hegemony. They conspired to finish him off at the embryonic stage. But to the misfortune of Nitish and Sushil Modi, after this incident he has emerged as the new face of contemporary Bihar politics. In Indian politics a section of the media and experts evaluate Nitish Kumar as next to Narendra Modi in terms of skill and manoeuvrability tactics. But Tejashvi demolished even his façade of high morality.

To be honest to the BJP and Sangh leadership, they have come to realise the potential of this young chap. They could comprehend that a new face of the secular force was waiting in the wings to show its presence on the stage. Basically that was the reason they had planned to implicate him in frivolous cases and malign him. Their strategy was to push him out of the political frame of the State to oblivion. But their calculation was based on parameters and inputs which were basically flawed and wrong. They never expected that he would come out of the shadow of his father so soon and in such a ferocious manner. The manner in which he lampooned and lambasted Nitish was beyond anyone’s expectation. True enough, Nitish could not retort to his charges.

His choosing the words to address Nitish also made it explicit that he has no respect for his claim to be the honest and conscientious politician. He used the term “boss” for Nitish making it clear that his image has a market value and nothing more.

Nitish did reply to his accusations while summing up the debate but it was insipid. It lacked thrust and conviction. He mocked at the charge levelled by Tejashvi that he had betrayed the mandate of the people given in 2015. On his part he tried to put the blame on Laloo and Tejashvi. He said: “The mandate given by the people was for a clean and transparent governance. My commitment is to serve the people and not one family.” Nitish wanted to tell the House that he had become a captive to Laloo. He even charged that the RJD was living in “ahankar (arrogance) and illusion”, obviously implying to Laloo.

Interestingly, at no stage did Nitish raise the accusing finger towards Laloo during his 20-month rule. To be fair enough to Nitish, he should have placed the facts in the public domain, as he did it on the day he resigned. If Nitish was really concerned of the charges of corruption against all the family members of Laloo, he should have taken up the issue with Laloo and try to find a way out of the impasse. He claimed to have maintained the alliance dharma. But it surely does not imply that you should hide the misdeeds of your partner.

Plain-speaking has its own dynamics and ironically politicians never indulge in plain- speaking. They simply maintain the façade of it. While Nitish himself admitted: “I had to face a lot of difficulties. But I tried to deal with it. I resigned only when I thought I could not run the government. I did not ask for Tejashvi’s resignation. But I asked him for an explanation. He did not have an explanation.” How come his spokespersons tell in public through the media that Nitish had asked Tejashvi to resign? Certainly this is against the ethics of coalition dharma.

No doubt Nitish intended to give a strong rebuff. But it lacked punch. However, the young leader of the Opposition, Tejashvi put him on the defensive. In contrast he took Niitsh to task on issues ranging from corruption to lust for power and questioned his motive behind forming four different governments. Even a senior BJP MLA was forced to concede: “We did not expect such a good retort from Tejashvi.” He hit Nitish where it hurts most. Through his body language and speech he made it clear that a new Opposition leader had been born in his own right. Nitish’s allegation that he was forced to tolerate the activities of the RJD leadership was aptly exposed by Tejashvi who told the House: “During these 20 months, Nitishji usually told me that he had grown old and I and Ashok Choudhary were the future of Bihar politics. He also warned us against the BJP and described it as an expert in conspiracies. What happened to your vow that you would rather die than rejoin the BJP? While I was Deputy Chief Minister I did my work honestly. I held the road construction department and moved a proposal that no file related to the award of contracts or to variation of bills would come to the Minister. Everybody knows what happens with these files, and had I disposed of these files or else I would have been framed. Nitishji knows who opposed the move in the Cabinet.”

Tejashvi was quite caustic: “Everybody knows what a large social base Nitishji has. In the 1995 Assembly elections... his party ended up with just seven seats.... In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls he ended up with just two seats. Nitishji needs the crutch of either the BJP or the RJD.” According to Tejashvi, his father Laloo “was not obsessed with putramoh (love for son). It was bhaimoh (love for brother).”

After three days of the high voltage moral drama, the situation has started returning to normalcy. The political picture has started taking a shape. The people too have started reacting to the development. One thing is clear and loud: that there are few takers for Nitish’s claims and exhortions. A senior government officer tried to find allegory to the TV serials’ popularity and quipped: “His TRP has fallen substantially.”

Even tribal leaders from the neighbouring State, Jharkhand, who were contemplating to float a joint front with Nitish, accused him of betraying their trust. Nitish Kumar may have won the trust vote but has lost the trust of the tribals in Jharkhand. He often visited Jharkhand and shared the dais with tribal leaders to attack the State BJP Government on giving tribal land to big corporate houses. He had also spoken against the BJP Government’s decisions to amend the tenancy law and local residents’ policy that they believed diluted the tribal claims to land and government jobs.

No doubt Laloo is involved in scams; he has been the godfather of the scamsters and has amassed a huge fortune out of his nasty operations, but this was certainly not the politically correct reason for Nitish’s volte-face, and also the move to paint Tejashvi with the same brush. Attempts are being made to project Nitish’s parting of ways as the dying declaration of secularism in India. This is simply a ploy to present Nitish as the sole saviour of secularism in the prevailing political scenario.

The fact of the matter is that the entire episode that took place just outside the sprawling palace of the Governor has once again exposed the politician’s greed and lust for power and, above all, the acute sense of insecurity that grips them for being out of power. Indian politics is littered with State leaders who thought they could easily become national figures.

Those who have watched Nitish growing in the State’s politics vouch that his first instinct has always been survival. He has an enviable track record of managing to remain an indispen-sable and also at the same time a firm believer in a weak party organisation that ensured he is never challenged from the inside. Look at the way he dropped George Fernandes, Sharad Yadav and many other leaders. He always prefers to ride on the piggy-back of one or other leader to reach his destination. This time he was desperate to get the Congress to acquire a national image.

He has been striving to fructify his mission without an organisation of his own, without a pan Indian ideology, without years of national outreach and of course without exhausting too much of sweat and blood. He intended to position himself as a conscience-keeper and crusader against corruption to serve his political manoe-uvring to ride the Modi bandwagon.

Undeniably Nitish is the first victim of the BJP’s mission of an “Opposition-mukt Bharat”. Modi has plans to have a Congress-mukt Bharat. But his confidant Amit Shah is more ambitious and has launched the mission Opposition-mukt Bharat. He is already been experimenting in different States. Goa, Manipur are witness to it. Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh have also joined the list of poaching territories, a hall of fame that is already crowded with Bihar, Gujarat, Goa and Arunachal Pradesh.

While the deserters are citing varied reasons from patriotism to fighting the national enemy, Nitish made his “inner voice” responsible for prompting him to resign and return as the Bihar Chief Minister in 15 hours with the BJP’s help. In the case of Gujarat the development has been of quite significance. For ensuring the defeat of Sonia Gandhi’s trusted aide, Ahmed Patel, in the election to the Rajya Sabha, the BJP had lured seven Congress MLAs to resign from the Assembly. The resignations coincided with Shah’s arrival in his home State to file his nomination papers for the Upper House polls. One thing is absolutely clear: that for achieving its goal, the BJP was reviving and indulging in the old nasty game of horse-trading.

Amit Shah’s Lucknow statement is worth quoting: “After forming governments in some of the States, the BJP has not lost and is continuously augmenting its strength. In this situation, our target should be to build a BJP that is invincible.”

There is no denying the fact that by going back to the BJP, Nitish has put at stake his political career. The BJP will eat him up. Some friends of Nitish describe his going over to the BJP side as the watershed moment in Indian politics. Does it really represent the death of secularism? Does it represent the death of regional parties? No such development has taken place. In fact Nitish has made himself vulnerable. He has a track record of managing to remain an indispensable figure in Bihar politics. His instinct, like many politicians in India, is to ensure a relatively weak internal party system. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s shift from being an ally of the RJD to forming a government with the BJP was effected in barely 14 hours. The speed of the transition may appear as though there was a certain inevitability built into it. An insight into the action will unravel the reality of Nitish feeling insecure. In fact he cannot continue to trust a strong partner for a longer period.

The reach and acceptability of the BJP as a pan-Indian party under Narendra Modi is quite extraordinary. It has a national and international footprint. One thing is obvious: the BJP of 2017 is not the BJP of 2013, when Nitish had shown it the door. Nitish’s record of shifting fast and loose between allies is a story of political expediency and it is not entirely clear what political compulsion or personal ambition the latest move was born of. Nitish will have to tread cautiously and cannot dare to dictate to the BJP. On the contrary, he will have to kowtow to the dictates of Amit Shah, the chief strategist of the BJP.

Nitish should also realise that he cannot run the Bihar Government according to his whim and desire as the future of the saffron politics in eastern India primarily depends on the success of the experiments the BJP leadership makes in Bihar. Nitish will have very little space to manoeuvre. It is not clear how he will steer the JD(U) on this political realignment in the days to come; a question-mark also remains on how long the new arrangement would last.

Nitish should come to realise that Amit Shah is not the person who would allow the party to play second fiddle to Nitish and compromise its position to be diluted only for the sake of keeping the coalition running and maintaining the coalition dharma. That Nitish has been an unfaithful partner is a known fact; obviously any sort of reconciliation would be a tricky exercise. One cannot expect that Shah would forget that Nitish had broken the 17-year-old Janata Dal (United)-BJP alliance in 2013 only for his personal gain.

In the prevailing situation Nitish will have to deal with a different BJP. The BJP leadership has already forced Nitish to induct 12 of its members, out of the total strength of 53 members in his Cabinet. Interestingly, they were allotted important portfolios like Finance, PWD, Urban Development and, for the first time, Agriculture. In 2010, the BJP had 91 seats, and got a similar number of Ministries. This simply reflects the changing times and clout of the BJP leadership.

The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at sriv52[at]gmail.com

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