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Nothing in politics is simply black and white

As the Maharashtra political battle plays out, it makes me wonder: what are the dominant features of today’s politics?

I would say that they are corruption and the death of ideology. And corruption takes two forms: corruption itself and weaponised investigations into corruption.


This is not unprecedented but it is nevertheless, surprising. When the BJP came to power in 2014, we thought that the ideological boundaries between parties had never been clearer. In the Atal Behari Vajpayee era, you could argue that the dividing lines between the Congress and the BJP were fluid. There were those in the Congress who wanted soft-Hindutva. And Vajpayee saw himself as a fan of Jawaharlal Nehru and distanced himself from the hardliners in the Sangh.


   On the other hand, the BJP under Narendra Modi has been clear about its stand in favour of Hindutva (and against Jawaharlal Nehru, for that matter). It regards the Congress as a curse on India and vows to create a Congress-mukt Bharat.


   It is the same with corruption. One reason why the BJP won a landslide in 2014 was because it promised to eradicate corruption and to create an India based on clean governance. After nine years of BJP rule there should have been no corruption in India.


   Yet, both issues dominate the agenda. And frequently they are rolled into one—as we are seeing in Maharashtra.


   The best way to understand what is happening in Indian politics today — or ‘the depths we have sunk to’ if you want to get all dramatic about it — is to look at the manner in which politicians desert the parties on whose tickets they were elected and rush to join or align with the BJP.


   Judging by the rhetoric of 2014, this should have been unthinkable. The ideological barriers between the BJP and the Congress and the other so-called secular parties are so strong now that it should be impossible for politicians to move between parties.


   And yet, not since the 1967 phase in Indian politics — when the phrase Aya-Ram-Gaya-Ram was popularised — has there been such a spate of defections. There exists, on paper at least, an Anti-Defection Law, but it is not worth the paper it is printed on. It makes absolutely no difference and elected representatives can easily defect at will.


   But what about the ideological dimension? During the first term of the BJP government, many members of the Congress and other ‘secular’ parties loudly condemned the BJP, using such overblown terms as ‘fascist’ along with ‘communal’. Surely these people can’t rush off to join that some ‘fascist’ or ‘communal’ party?


   You bet they can!


   If you were to pull out the speeches made by various Congress and other Opposition leaders attacking the BJP before eventually going off to join it, they make for sad and pathetic reading. Perhaps they never meant any of the things they said when they launched their attacks on the BJP. Or even if they did mean them when they said them, they concluded that self-advancement was far more important than ideology or political integrity.


   Some months ago, Shashi Tharoor pointed out that while he had nothing personal against those of his colleagues who had joined the BJP, he wondered about their commitment to ideology. When you join politics, you commit yourself to a particular ideology. That’s how you decide which party to join. How can you then execute an 180° about-turn and join a party whose ideology is the very opposite of the one you originally espoused?


"Is it a coincidence that around half the MLAs he took with him to his swearing-in also faced corruption charges?"

   There are many answers to that question. But one major factor (at least in the Congress, the NCP and many other smaller parties) is that people no longer join politics for ideological reasons. For many of them it is a family business. If the father or mother is a politician, the son or daughter will follow. If the power equations that prevailed during the father or mother’s time no longer hold (i.e. the party they joined has weakened), then the son or daughter will choose a party that is currently strong.


   The BJP which once railed against dynastic politics now warmly welcomes dynasts. And it now says that it is not against political dynasts but only against parties that are controlled by one family. (Which still does not explain why it would align with one faction of the NCP, a party created and controlled by the Pawar family).


   In fact, recent events in Maharashtra offer a good indication of what politics has now become. The NCP was launched by Sharad Pawar (and various sidekicks who are now forgotten) to protest against Sonia Gandhi’s ‘foreign origin’ and her leadership of the Congress. That was its sole ideological deviation from the Congress. It promptly dropped this issue when it needed to align with the Congress in Maharashtra and at the Centre to get a share of power.


   It has since become what the Prime Minister calls a ‘family party’, marked by rivalry between members of Sharad Pawar’s family, especially his nephew Ajit and his daughter Supriya. While the NCP still uses the same ‘secular’ rhetoric in public, Ajit Pawar has actually aligned with the BJP once. When that failed, he came back and resumed being a professional secularist within the NCP.


   It worked well: he became Deputy Chief Minister. But then the coalition government where he wielded power collapsed following defections from the Shiv Sena (which is another sordid story for another time). Ajit Pawar re-examined his options, waited till last week, and then took some MLAs to join the BJP government in Maharashtra. (Yes, they made him Deputy Chief Minister again!)


   Obviously, ideology had nothing to do with it. But corruption might have. Days before Ajit Pawar joined the BJP alliance, Narendra Modi had publicly railed against the NCP’s corruption. The Enforcement Directorate has also attached assets worth 1000 crores allegedly belonging to Ajit Pawar.


   Could this have played some part in Pawar’s decision to switch sides? Is it a coincidence that around half the MLAs he took with him to his swearing-in also faced corruption charges?


   And what happens to the corruption cases now? Having first called Ajit Pawar corrupt, the BJP has now made him Deputy Chief Minister. It is a fair assumption that the corruption cases will now be forgotten.


   So, just as ideology has lost all meaning, so has the promised war against dishonesty in public life. Corruption is now no more than a weapon, a means of inducing politicians to switch parties.


   There many precedents. For instance the BJP encouraged defections in West Bengal where TMC members who had been charged with corruption promptly jumped ship. They were immediately absolved of any crimes they may have committed in their TMC days once they changed sides.


   The BJP can argue with some justification that the central government is honest. There have been no major corruption scandals. But can it still describe itself as a crusader against corruption if it keeps admitting people who it has itself described as crooks and scamsters? And if it then automatically ceases pursuing cases against them as soon as they align with the BJP?


   There are two medium-term consequences to all this. The first is that the chimera of opposition unity seems further and further away. Not only are a lot of these opposition leaders crooks who are terrified of being prosecuted but they are only opposed to the BJP till it makes them a better offer. Then they scurry off to touch Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s feet.


   But there are consequences for the BJP too. The Prime Minister’s supporters say that his mission is to build an ideologically pure India, ruled by Hindutva and to get rid of all the ‘Congress/secular party’ pestilences.


   Many people will ask the obvious question: how ideologically pure can this new India be if it is packed out with Congress refugees and other time-severs and defectors who have no deep commitment to the ideals the BJP claims to stand for? Isn’t it going to become just like any other party?


   And secondly, despite the Prime Minister’s image as a man who has no interest in making money for himself, can the BJP keep projecting itself as an honest party when it is packed out with newly-welcomed crooks who the BJP itself has long denounced for their corruption?


   Nothing in politics is simply black and white. But with each party it breaks and each crook it clasps to its bosom, the BJP steps more and more into the darkness of deep grey areas.



Posted On: 13 Jul 2023 11:10 AM
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