October 26, 2015

. . .the 2015 election in Bihar is also an argument about India (Mukul Kesavan)

The Telegraph, October 26, 2015

Nitish vs Narendra? - Elections and ideology
Mukul Kesavan

India is in the middle of the Bihar elections. Two stages of the five-stage poll have been completed. The result seems too close to call, but everyone is agreed that the election will be a turning point in contemporary politics.

For the Bharatiya Janata Party, a defeat will signal that Narendra Modi's political charisma has dimmed; a victory will demonstrate that the rout in Delhi was an aberration and that the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah double act has, in fact, changed the grammar of Indian politics by successfully making virtually every election a presidential contest between Modi and Antagonist X.

For Nitish Kumar and the other provincial satraps in Indian politics, this election is a chance to prove that caste arithmetic, good governance and local rootedness taken together are a viable defence against Modi's pan-Indian pulling power. A win for the Grand Alliance - Mahagathbandhan - might derail the Modi juggernaut; a defeat will flatten the Janata Dal (United) and put other dominant provincial parties on notice of extinction.

There is a special piquancy to this contest because the BJP and the JD(U) had cohabited as the two principal wings of a very successful governing coalition in Bihar. Nitish Kumar chose to opt out of the coalition when Modi was made the BJP's prime ministerial candidate in the run-up to the 2014 general election. His stated reason was that Modi, thanks to the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat in the early months of his chief ministership, was a communal, polarizing figure and he could not, in good conscience, be part of a coalition with the BJP if that party was led by Modi.

Not only did Nitish Kumar pay a crippling political price for this divorce - his party won just two parliamentary seats in Bihar while the National Democratic Alliance under Modi virtually swept the province - but he was also mocked for his secularist scruples. His decision was disparaged not just by the usual suspects - the BJP and its intellectual fellow travellers - it was also criticized by political pragmatists unaffiliated to the BJP who argued that a provincial leader who had restored law and order and set Bihar on the path to economic growth ought to have stayed the course instead of dissolving a successful coalition to strike secular attitudes. These critics became even more concerned when Nitish Kumar, whose political 'brand' had been constructed in opposition to Lalu Prasad's era of populist lawlessness, constructed a Grand Alliance with Prasad's party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, for the sake of political survival.

Political commentary in India tends to default to the idea that, deep down, the Indian citizen and voter is a needy pragmatist more concerned with better access to the necessities of life - water, electricity, roads, education - than he is with identity politics and ideological positions. For critical realists, Nitish Kumar's cardinal error was to let this voter down in the name of a secularism that served no governing purpose except as a slogan with which to mop up Muslim votes. He was either an egotist, unable to stomach Modi's political moment or a hypocrite, who, having been in bed with the BJP for years, played the secular card to replace the upper-caste support he would lose once the coalition broke, with the Muslim vote.

This understanding of Nitish Kumar's motives was based on three 'realist' assumptions. One, the notion that the BJP for all its majoritarianism was a political party interested in achieving and holding office. It wouldn't destabilize settled provincial governments by stoking communal tensions merely because it had a new leader with something of a reputation as a Hindu strongman. Two, the conviction that Modi's political strategy was premised on his governing credentials and the economic success of the Gujarat model, not the polarizing violence of 2002, which was seen as an early aberration, not a defining moment. It helped that Modi's absolute majority in the general election was attributed by the mainstream media to his 'aspirational' message, 'aspirational' here being code for the desire for social and economic mobility. Three, the refusal to consider the possibility that Nitish Kumar's objection to Modi could be ideological, not instrumental. This scepticism was based partly on experience, the debasement of secular and pluralist rhetoric by Yadav & Yadav, but mainly because realism as a theoretical position doesn't have a vocabulary for understanding or explaining ideological commitment. In the aftermath of the general election and the new government's honeymoon period, this remained the dominant explanation for the parting of ways in Bihar: Nitish Kumar, grandstanding loser versus Narendra Modi, harbinger of good times.

Then the narrative changed. Modi and his colleagues didn't become visibly more bigoted than they had been before nor did communal riots begin to erupt in every corner of the country. The NDA lost a few crucial political battles and his political honeymoon ended.

The willingness of Modi's fellow travellers to suspend disbelief - their capacity to overlook the Muslim baiting in Amit Shah's election campaign or Modi's dog-whistling when he spoke of the 'Pink Revolution', their blindness to the routine bigotry of the sadhvis, of Sakshi Maharaj, of Sangeet Som and Giriraj Singh and countless others - was fortified by Modi's image as an irresistible force carrying all before him.

When Modi lost the Delhi election and went eye to eye with the Opposition on the land acquisition bill and blinked, he suddenly wasn't invulnerable any more. The true believers were unswerving in their loyalty but Modi's fair-weather fellow travellers began to turn.

The Vyapam scam, Lalit Modi's furtive friendship with Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje smudged Modi's pastel waistcoats with scandal. People began to remember Muzaffarnagar, to wonder about 'controlled polarization' in Trilokpuri, to pay attention to what Modi's legislators and ministers said and, as importantly, what the prime minister didn't say. And it became apparent that politics wasn't just an argument about governance and policy, it was also a quarrel about the way India was defined, that ideology mattered. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a cluster of violent incidents made the Modi regime's majoritarianism apparent, like laboratory experiments precipitating invisible vapours into a smelly distillate. The incidents themselves seemed random and unrelated; what made them a single story was the perverse consistency of the BJP's response.

The Bihar elections have been preceded by acts of hideous violence that occurred elsewhere, off-stage. These tragedies - the lynching at Dadri, two other murders in the name of cow-protection, the burning to death of two Dalit children in Haryana - helped clarify the nature of the political contest in Bihar. The lynching of Mohammed Akhlaque was the cue for members of the sangh parivar to serially perform their basic beliefs. They lined up behind the mob to sing majoritarian anthems set to the mood music of gau raksha.

They didn't have to do this - the Dadri lynching had happened on Akhilesh Yadav's watch - but they chose to take sides, over and over again. They couldn't stop talking; the prime minister, meanwhile, said nothing. Let alone reproach his partymen for their vileness, he didn't even acknowledge the tragedy for two weeks. There has always been something of the night about the BJP; its response to Akhlaque's death helped make that darkness visible. After accounting for the greed, narcissism, corruption and cynicism that fuels elections, Dadri demonstrated that the battle for Bihar remains an ideological contest between those who would have the State enforce deference to Hindu sensibilities and those who would not. Or, as the BJP's most genteel Bihari leader put it, the election was a choice between those who eat beef and those who would ban cow slaughter. This brutal binary is the coinage of Sushil Modi, a model of moderation, or what passes for it, in the BJP.

In the light of recent events, Nitish Kumar's decision that business-as-usual coalition politics would be impossible under the sign of Modi, seems reasonable. Pundits now recall that there was precedent for Nitish Kumar's decision to quit the NDA. Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Odisha, who had been in alliance with the BJP for many years in that state, chose to break with it in 2009 in the aftermath of that party's involvement in the violence against Christians in Kandhamal. There was no minority of any electoral consequence to 'pander' to in Odisha, since 94 per cent of Odisha's population is Hindu. Breaking with the BJP was a real risk because dividing the erstwhile alliance's votes could have helped the Congress, the principal political Opposition in the state. It was a risk Patnaik chose to take because he drew the line at ethnic cleansing in his backyard. He gambled and won, winning the lion's share of both parliamentary and provincial legislative assembly seats in Odisha. In 2014, Nitish Kumar gambled and lost; he has now rolled the dice again.

It would be a mistake to read this Bihar election as Nitish Kumar's karmabhoomi or, for that matter, Modi's. For all their narcissism, these men embody nation-defining ideas larger than themselves. The lynching and its aftermath gave us a sense of how the BJP imagines India; Nitish Kumar has gone to great, some would say self-destructive, lengths to reject that vision. Whether we like it or not and whether Bihar's voters specifically will it or not, the result of the Bihar election will help one cause and hinder the other. To see the election in terms of egotism or incumbency or managerial styles alone is to ignore the obvious: the election in Bihar is also an argument about India.