As campaigning for the Bihar assembly election rages on, we are presented with competing narratives of corruption and (promised) development. The materiality of such narratives may undermine the competing but latent moral codes that are at play through the politics of identity.
Tejashwi Yadav is drawing crowds and this may cast doubts in the minds of liberals (whether religious or atheist), who ask why the son of a ‘corrupt’ politician is becoming popular. The answer to this question may lie in the problematic framing of this question itself. Politics in India in general and in Bihar too is suffused with corruption. Broadly speaking, there is no politics without corruption and only the scale and intensity may vary across regions.
Corruption as power
For understanding Tejashwi’s popularity, we may need to return to Lalu Prasad Yadav’s charisma. Why has Lalu been so popular despite being allegedly corrupt?
Jeffrey Witsoe, a political anthropologist, provides us a different reading of corruption. The question of corruption, he suggests, is linked to the structuring of power, and only those who have (political) power can be corrupt. Lalu, by usurping political power from the ‘upper’ castes, also hijacked their power to be corrupt, and for his followers, this made total and complete sense.
In regional and national politics, the BJP has now increasingly constructed itself as the face of ‘development’, and its successive electoral victories are said to have triumphed over regimes of corruption.
But is the BJP non-corrupt? In 2019, a few MLAs from the JD(S)-Congress coalition switched to the BJP and brought the latter to power. For the BJP’s supporters, neither those MLAs nor the party they had joined were seen as ‘corrupt’ for doing this. As the drama unfolded, I was doing fieldwork in Bengaluru on one of the social initiatives of the RSS and a senior pracharak commented on the irony that is politics.
“Guruji (Golwalkar) used to always say politics is like the bathroom and if you enter there’s always a strong possibility that you will slip and fall,” he remarked. Slipping and falling implied losing your morals and ethics and falling into the (impure) world of corruption and seduction of power.
However, the discourse of corruption is a limited one in understanding the cultural codes of politics in India. Big projects or small schemes may not work without systematic leakage — channeling money to bureaucrats and politicians. This does not mean that corruption is a non-issue in politics but the fact that those in power tend to be corrupt has also continued to ‘authenticate’ power in the popular understanding. The state and its apparatus are like a (public) holy cow and, therefore, everyone has a right to milk it. And milking depends on your power to leverage.
Identity struggles and politics of ethics
Does this mean politics in India is void of morals and ethics? Is democracy up for sale? Beyond the materialist discourses of development and corruption, it is in the realm of the politics of recognition (identity) that the fight for ethics is turned into concrete political action.
For instance, BJP’s Hindutva promises a new moral universe by turning Hinduism into a civil religion and all citizens (Hindus) into nationalist Hindus. Such solidarity hopes to construct a new selfless Hindu devoid of caste, one who embodies fellow feeling towards all Hindus. The Hindu past – both selective and imaginative is evoked here as a resource for the unity of Hindus. State policies and the collective conscience thus intersect – the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, ‘reclaiming’ the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and the scrapping of Article 370 are signs of constituting a new moral universe and public conscience that unites ‘vulnerable’ Hindus against the ‘marauding’ Muslims and the seduction of Western/Christian civilisation.
Paradoxically, the counter to this high discourse of nationalist Hinduism is found in the recognition struggles of ‘low’ castes and non-Hindus. For instance, the claim of Lingayats to be a separate religion (that does not believe in the Vedas and caste) and the opposition of almost all Mandal and Ambedkarite parties to the CAA. Latent in identity struggles are claims of the moral universe of the nation and these are not void of welfarist claims and promises. There are parallels between Lalu pointing a finger at the ‘upper’ caste-ness of the BJP by citing passages from Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts and Tejashwi Yadav’s manifesto that promises ‘10 lakh jobs’ – both lay claim to an inclusive nation and nationalism from below.
While the nationalist Hinduism of the BJP seeks to unite Hindus beyond caste while being silent on caste power and violence, Lalu and Tejashwi Yadav’s politics of recognition is embedded in caste, and seeks the broader unity of the marginalised through caste.
As voters swing between the seduction of being a nationalist Hindu or a caste-citizen with emancipatory logic, the promise of corruption-less politics continues to be a mirage in Bihar like elsewhere in India. This does not mean we lack competitive politics over morals and ethics. The politics of recognition — both the Hindutva and non-Hindutva varieties host such possibilities.
Suryakant Waghmore is Associate Professor of Sociology at IIT-Bombay. He is the author of Civility against Caste (Sage 2013) and his forthcoming co-edited book with Hugo Gorringe is titled Civility in Crisis (Routledge 2020). His twitter handle is @Suryakant_Waghm.