The choice today is not between authentic and hypocritical politicians. In fact, the only choice is between harmless, risky and dangerous forms of hypocrisy and the JD(U) chief has mastered the first.
In his exit from the grand alliance of the opposition that freed him to embrace the ever-powerful ruling behemoth, Nitish Kumar has certainly excited emotion. But then apathy has been in short supply since at least 2014. With a high-octane, event-driven, slogan-oriented regime, any indifference that may have been cultivated to cope with or take cover from a relentlessly active and forever ‘on’ form of Indian politics, has once more been jolted into yet another demanding gear.
For ever since his victory in Bihar in 2015, Nitish has symbolised hope to counter the neo-Hindutva hegemonic surge that has swept the nation. Always aiming to surprise, it was only a little over a month ago that Nitish decided to cast his lot with the ruling party’s presidential nominee, Ram Nath Kovind, over and above his fellow Bihari and ally Meira Kumar. This was a contest that had for the first time made the caste calculus irrelevant because both candidates were Dalits. Even then, few thought that Nitish had broken ranks with the mahagathbandhan, which was but a grand word for a ragtag operation.
Just recently, the historian Ramchandra Guha declared Nitish a leader without a party, and the Congress a party without a leader. A clever quip, the jibe nevertheless sought to project Nitish as the true and hopeful opposition leader of India.
As last week’s entirely predictable events unfolded with precision and speed, Guha suggested, first, that Nitish ought to have gone to the people before swapping sides, though he ultimately conceded that his quip had backfired badly and the joke was indeed entirely on him. The truth, of course, is that one can neither smile at Guha’s snappy one-liner nor take pleasure in its unraveling. For as a rather vocal representative of the republic, Guha was only articulating what many hoped for in Nitish. Others unable to cope with Nitish’s decision blamed the Congress for both its utter ineptitude and wilful failure in allowing this to happen.
For over two decades, Nitish has achieved the unthinkable in any democracy, let alone one as fiercely competitive as Bihar and India more generally. With a sliver of an electoral base, he has managed not only to form governments several times over, but has above all also achieved the rather more difficult task of becoming the face of political integrity.
Nitish has been associated with all those positive attributes that are scarce in politics, let alone normal life. He is seen to be non-corrupt, efficient, pro-women, anti-communal, a self-made leader with no dynastic successors in a country riven by familial nepotism starting from the local kirana shops, media and academia, to the law, business and Bollywood. Perhaps dynastic power has been most paradoxical in politics, as this is one activity ostensibly set up as a competition of ideas rather than genes.
Precisely for these reasons, Nitish’s decision to show the proverbial finger to the grand alliance against the dominant duo of Amit Shah and Narendra Modi has incited emotional hysterics. Most commentators expressed a sense of betrayal. Yet others tried to explain the betrayal as ‘politics as usual’, meaning that Nitish’s volte-face was in effect the triumph of self-interest and self-preservation over and above any ideology. Nitish’s decision was even seen as a sign of the true and ‘deep nature’ of Indian politics, with the Bihar leader immediately recast as the arch ‘realistic’ political survivor of India’s democracy.
Neither cynicism nor misplaced hope fully captures the play of masking and unmasking upon which this drama has depended.
In leaving the alliance, Nitish, in his defence, said he could no longer be a mask for the corruption associated with his partners in the Yadav parivar. In response, his betrayed allies point out that Nitish has gone from being the face of secularism to becoming the mask for high-octane Hindutva.
Either way, the switch has captured the two main themes of current Indian politics and democracy: corruption and secularism, with the former being everywhere and secularism increasingly nowhere. The ease with which Nitish has switched allies has been made possible not because anti-corruption has somehow superseded Hindutva, but largely because of the political ‘virtue’ and necessity of hypocrisy.
In a bracing account, Cambridge political theorist and commentator David Runciman, in his book Political Hypocrisy, uncovers the power of hypocrisy in sustaining modern politics. While no one likes to be played for a fool, Runciman contends, hypocrisy is unavoidable. But not all hypocrisies are the same. Ranging from the polite concealment of true feelings to vicious deception, hypocrisy has gone together with its opposite, namely sincerity. While politicians are almost expected to fake sincerity, voters too are hypocritical, in that they deem politicians to be worse than themselves.
In this age of anger, sincerity and authenticity have become compelling sentiments fuelling the fury against politics, having helped install Trump as president and given power to Britain’s Brexiters, both seen to be sincere and authentic. Moreover, these choices are perceived to have bridged the chasm between the politician and the people. Thus the hypocritical mask has fallen from the face of power through these choices, while true feelings have now been given a powerful expression.
The people and the politician in Trumpland and Brexit Britain are now locked in a reinforcing embrace of authenticity. Yet they will increasingly depend on hypocritical compromises, as is already evident, to prosecute the power needed to conduct the business of government. In India, both the anti-corruption movement and the rise of the AAP weaponised sincerity, and Nitish – until last week – had over two decades won unanimous admiration for his anti-corrupt style of politics.
Modi, though, has aced sincerity and authenticity. There is a rising refrain that with him what you see is what you get, especially when it comes to Hindutva. Moreover, through a concerted and canny deployment of media, Modi has fashioned himself as the true face of India. Recall the Modi masks that swamped the electoral horizon in 2014, signalling Modi, a man of humble origins, as the everyman of the republic. In amassing power, Modi has assiduously aimed at avoiding the hypocrisies that power brings, mostly by steering the media and circumventing its mediation through direct broadcasts of his inner thoughts or ‘Mann Ki Baat’.
Sincerely dangerous or the dead hypocrite?
Deploying much aggression and even marshalling hatred as an authentic sentiment, Modi, Trump and the Brexiters, despite differences, have sought to displace hypocrisy. Yet hypocrisy remains ubiquitous if unrecognised and underrated.
Corruption in India is the arch issue of the hypocrite. No political party, institution or business is free from it. Since no one can morally make a case for corruption, its staggering scale and the shameless show of unaccountable wealth is only put to question by politicians seeking to change a given power equation.
This is not say that Nitish’s erstwhile ally Tejashwi Yadav is not corrupt. Rather, that for Nitish, who has at least since 2013 stood against politics of Hindutva, anti-corruption has provided the perfect mask to join the new hegemonic order. It would be much harder for Nitish to convince his voters or the committed hard core of the RSS that he has found home in Hindutva, a particularly demanding ideology. But it very easy for him to claim with sincerity that in joining Modi and Shah, he has batted against corruption. And this is precisely why Nitish is unlikely to be punished for his hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy, despite the recent surge in sincerity, is here to stay. The choice, as Runciman argues, is not between authentic and hypocritical politicians. In fact, the only choice is between harmless, risky and dangerous forms of hypocrisy. For politicians, the riskiest form of hypocrisy is undoubtedly to make the difficult look easy. India knows that all too well, and has punished those who promised easily to end poverty or make India an immediate shining prospect. Remember “Achhe Din”? In this sense, Modi is the most risky and dangerous hypocrite of all.
Shruti Kapila teaches modern Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets at @shrutikapila.