“We are coming together to defend secularism by defeating Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and the RSS,” proclaimed Lalu Prasad with typical bombast in September 2015 just ahead of the Bihar assembly elections. “Our biggest challenge is to defeat the forces of communalism represented by Mr Modi,” argued Nitish Kumar vehemently. The die had been cast: in the autumn of 2015, the citadel of secularism had to be protected at all costs from the saffron army led by the strongman from Gujarat. Almost two years later, the rules of the political game have changed once again: now, with Nitish switching sides to Mr Modi, secularism it appears is no longer an ideal worth fighting for because, in the words of the Bihar chief minister, there must be ‘zero tolerance’ to corruption.
Corruption and communalism are being projected as if they are two adversarial forces engaged in a bitter tussle. The narrative has been artfully spun as if you have to make a conscious choice between battling the corrupt or ostracising the communal: you no longer can seek to do both and survive politically. In the process, the moral bankruptcy and rank opportunism of our netas has been bared once again.
Indeed, this is now a classic case of ‘secularism’ and ‘anti-corruption’ on call, catchy slogans that have become a purdah for political duplicity. Does Nitish Kumar, for example, become ‘secular’ when he is part of the anti-Modi ‘mahagatbandhan’ and ‘communal’ when he joins hands with the Mr Modi? Is anti-Modiism the sole defining badge of secularism, or is there a deep-rooted flesh and blood commitment to a pluralistic vision of a country which will not accept any compromise with those who support a majoritarian state? Nitish, after all, spent 17 long years as part of the BJP-led NDA and kept silent during the Gujarat 2002 riots. Did the RSS’s Hindutva ideology only become anathema for him in June 2013 when Mr Modi took over the BJP leadership?
Nor is Nitish the first instance of such short-sighted, selective politics that has, in a sense, almost delegitimised the secular challenge. The Mumbai Congress chief Sanjay Nirupam, for example, started his political career as a Shiv Sena MP who even edited a Sena mouthpiece that poured communal venom during the post-Ayodhya Mumbai riots in 1992-93. Can Mr Nirupam really be at the vanguard of the fight for ‘secularism’ simply because he has now switched sides? In Gujarat, Shankarsinh Vaghela was the face of the Congress for the last 15 years even though he was a devout member of the sangh parivar for much of his political life. Does he now suddenly lose his ‘secular’ identity because he has resigned from the Congress?
Moroever, the despair in the secular camp at the ascent of Modi did also seriously compromise the fight against corruption. In 2015, Lalu Prasad was a convict in the fodder scam but still a valued member of the anti-Modi coalition because he had the crucial vote bank to offer: the spectre of ‘jungle raj’ was forgotten because an election had to be won. Can Rahul Gandhi explain how he tears up an anti-corruption ordinance that was brought in by the UPA government to protect Lalu in October 2013 and then aligns with the same individual two years later?
The hypocrisy cuts across parties: can the BJP, which now targets Lalu as the ultimate symbol of political corruption, explain how it ran a government in Karnataka with the support of the Reddy brothers, the mining barons charged with massive fraud? Or how it happily made peace with Congress defectors in Uttarakhand who they once accused of corruption? Or why cases against the BJP’s political rivals are being fast-tracked by the CBI even as those in BJP-ruled states like Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh are being buried? Or is the yardstick of corruption a measure of the state’s brazenly partisan approach: you are corrupt only when the state agencies pronounce you as such?
Truth is, both corruption and communalism need to be resisted in an uncompromising, non-discriminatory manner. The dangers of creating any false binary between the two are apparent in the BJP’s choice of Yogi Adityanath as UP chief minister. A leader with a troubling record of stoking communal hatred was cheered when he promised to rid UP of corruption: is Yogi’s spiteful past to be forgotten because he now is a self-styled crusader against corruption?
Post-script: In the past week, the BJP’s internet army and Nitish supporters have been busy deleting what they said about each other on social media in the last four years. I suggest they press the pause button instead: who knows, after all, when next will the political ‘hawa’ change?