For the first time, the Nehruvian order is facing an existential challenge. It can be met – as it must be – but only by a morally superior politics.
Most liberals in India are in a state of blue funk. Publicly and privately they bemoan the demonetisation of secular ideas and values after a working mahant from Gorakhpur got anointed as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. There is among the liberals a sense of isolation, even what the French call depaysement. One liberal writes to lament that the new chief minister in Manipur is the same person against whom in 2011 the BJP had kicked up a shindy because his son was accused in a murder case but now that the son stands convicted of homicide (Section 304), N. Biren Singh stands certified as a gentrified deshbhakt. Another liberal writes exasperatedly that the same Vijay Bahuguna against whom Narendra Modi had raved and ranted about his incompetence as chief minister of Uttarakhand was now being palmed off as a “respectable” face in the BJP company. Yet another liberal voice insists that the new chief minister of Uttar Pradesh has a number of criminal cases against him. And, then, there is that wonderfully opportunist par excellence, Rita Bahuguna Joshi, first a Congresswoman, then a Samajwadi, then again a Congress face and now a BJP minister. So, all the liberals seem to be asking of one another: Is this the “new India” we have been promised in the not too distant future?
Depressing as all these instances of outbreak of political immorality and expediency maybe, it is possible to suggest that no one should lose sight of the emerging silver lining: the BJP is the new Congress. If the BJP is the new pan-India party, undertaking the necessary task of providing a sense of political coherence and discipline in our otherwise bewilderingly continental polity, then it has necessarily to be a host to all the riff-raff, the crooks and the criminals, the corrupt and the corrupting as well. In fact, the liberal camp should be rather rejoicing that the BJP can no longer be distinguished from what the Congress used to look like during the heyday of its dominance in the 1980s — the same obsession with the Leader, the same weakness for majoritarianism, the same congenial co-existence with Mafiosi elements.
Perhaps the best news is that a new assertive and fashionable unprincipledness is getting institutionalised in the BJP. For my money, I find nothing more reassuring than the much celebrated induction of S.M. Krishna, a former chief minister of Karnataka and former external affairs minister of India, in the BJP. Krishna is a gentleman; he is educated and is a man of taste; he is urbane and cosmopolitan; he is a connoisseur of European soccer and Wimbledon — in other words, a total and perfect anti-thesis of Yogi Adityanath and his world of eastern UP. The liberal camp should do well to ponder as to what political calculations and personal predilections would drive a man like Krishna to leave the Congress and to get himself photographed with Amit Shah – and, better still, the liberals should find it somehow reassuring that the BJP has become so amorally enamoured of realpolitik calculations that it is happy to have a Krishna.
Maybe the BJP is not as kattar as some of us have been made to believe. Maybe the BJP is entering that familiar phase of collapse of collective imagination when an organisation comes to believe in the absolute infallibility of its absolute leader and it starts believing that the Leader’s charisma and enlightened leadership override infirmities and immorality of its tactics. This is an old conceit that all sorts of compromises can be made but the Leader’s enlightened leadership could still be relied upon to produce good governance and wise policies. Well, let it be the BJP’s funeral.
Why the secular angst? Maybe the liberal is disappointed that the secular camp was not able to replicate Delhi (of Arvind Kejriwal) and Bihar (of Nitish Kumar-Lallu Prasad Yadav). But that is no reason to grudge the Hindutva camp its political cleverness. In fact, in the case of the BJP it cannot be accused of any duplicity; after all, the Adityanath was very much photographed atop the vikas rath since the first phase of the UP election. Why should the liberals blame the BJP, the RSS and Sangh parivar for being successful in selling their wares? Why not recognise the BJP’s ability to practise adroitly casteist and communal politics and yet excite and entice the Khan Market constituency with its vikas sleight of hand?
And, above all, no liberal should blame the voter for deserting the secular ramparts when the presumed mascots and practitioners of secularism had themselves long ago lost their faith. Why castigate the voters for rejecting Mayawati and her secular sales-pitch? The liberals may want to forget but the voters did not forget that it was the same Ms Mayawati who had lent her name and support to the BJP during the 2002 assembly elections in Gujarat after those horrible riots. Why should the voters believe in her exhortations against “communal Modi”? The liberals may be horrified that Modi was visiting every single temple in Varanasi but no one seems to have noticed that Rahul Gandhi – along with Akhilesh Yadav and Dimple Yadav – also visited temples, presumably in deference to “Hindu sentiments”.
The loss of secular faith has been in the making for quite a while. It may be a bit sobering, even painful, to recall that just after ten years of independence, Jawaharlal Nehru was publicly bemoaning that while “the Congress stood for a secular society, the workers were slipping away from the Congress principles of secularism and becoming more and more communal minded.” That, sir, was in May 1958.
Since 1958 not just secular ideas and values but also many other noble Nehruvian impulses got discarded by those very leaders and groups that swore and prospered by Nehru’s name. The liberals now have to find the answer to a simple question: Is the secular cause worth a fight? If the answer has to be a definitive yes, then they should demand a new politics from the secular parties and leaders. The secular compact is undoubtedly and uncompromisingly a noble cause, the shiniest jewel in our constitutional compact for a democratic and plural social order; but, this cause cannot be served by shabby practitioners of unwholesome politics. Let it be understood: what began in 2014 stands reaffirmed in 2017. For the first time, the Nehruvian order is facing an existential challenge. It can be met – as it must be – but only by a morally superior politics.
Harish Khare is Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune, where this article first appeared.