Deep metaphysical truths about politics often emerge in a hyper-politicised state like Bihar. I remember a conversation with a group of Nitish Kumar supporters who were upset when he broke his alliance with the BJP. One interlocutor said, “Inka gunah hai ke yeh paristhiti mein aur apne mein bhed nahin kar pa rahe hain (his besetting sin is that he cannot distinguish between his circumstances and himself)”.
Politicians are vulnerable when they are unable to distinguish what is due to circumstances and what is due to them. Instead of seeing how objective reality impinges on them, they begin to think reality is an extension of their will. In Nitish’s case, the specific charge at the time was that he had begun to believe whatever good was happening in Bihar was due entirely to him. He forgot the circumstances that allowed him a modicum of success. Nitish’s first term was unusual because, after decades, caste polarisation had been taken off the explicit agenda. His government had a wide social coalition, of the top and the bottom. One of the conditions of effective governance is to have a wide social coalition behind you, or else some social force or the other will devour the best administrative acumen. This is a deep truth.
A subsidiary point was that Nitish had picked all the low-hanging governance fruits. The tougher decisions that Bihar needs to take on topics as diverse as land and education will require even more broad-based support. The wicked challenges now facing Bihar need even broader social negotiations. Bihar had precariously created the possibility of such a moment. Will any political party be able to recreate it?
But this piece of wisdom is also relevant to the BJP and the Congress. It is hard to know what the inner tensions and pressures on a politician are. But Rahul Gandhi’s spectacular downfall post 2009 is a classic case of confusing circumstances with one’s own ego. Much changed after 2009. The Congress forgot that, in 2009, the Opposition was still weak; it was still reaping the dividends of growth; it got some benefit from standing behind Manmohan Singh, who had not yet lost his sheen. In fact, in 2009, the Congress took some risks by going it alone in UP; Rahul got credit for that. But after that, it has been a free fall, for which Rahul is at least as centrally responsible.
Three big changes were evident somewhere in the middle of the UPA’s second term. First, as a public persona, Rahul came across as increasingly narcissistic. He seemed to be increasingly closed to political realities, and everything from the government to the party became an extension of his pet obsessions. His narcissism was evident in the way he humiliated the prime minister by tearing up his government’s ordinance in public. But the second persona he projected was victimhood. Faced with scandal after scandal, the standard narrative put out was that Rahul wanted to change the party and fix corruption, while the old guard was hemming him in. He was trying to build a virtuous party, while corrupt government was another matter. Nothing could be farther from the truth. And in any case, politics of victimhood may allow you to hold on to a sense of injured virtue, but it does little to convince voters. His sole political card seemed to be his own self-fulfilling belief in his good intentions; circumstances be damned.
The third change was more sociological. The Congress pulled off the spectacular feat of being both crony capitalist and anti-business at the same time. His close circle forgot that urban India was a crucial element in their 2004 victory. In fact, Rahul’s inner circle seemed full of people who were so concerned about expiating their guilt at being privileged that they refused to see the ways in which India was changing. In some ways, they forgot that, just as India cannot be governed with communal polarisation, it cannot be governed with class polarisation: it needs its entrepreneurs as much as its workers, its farmers as much as its urban middle class. This just is a sociological reality: polarisation is a pathway to paralysis.
Last month, we saw a hint of Narendra Modi being beset by a similar confusion: his persona occluded reality. Hopefully, he can pull back. But there is a deeper structural challenge faced by the government. The BJP risks being trapped by a double cynicism. Its support of the original land acquisition bill was ill considered. But promulgating an ordinance in haste has cast a shadow over the BJP’s intentions. It has also been put in an awkward situation where even if it makes the right changes, it will be seen as a climb down. It has unnecessarily given the Opposition an issue. The land act needed changes. But what the NDA’s ordinance proposed was a lot of subterfuge — it reeked of the same casualness that had destroyed the UPA’s credibility.
But just as the Congress was blindsided by who its imagined constituency was, the BJP was blindsided by the thought that it needed to send swift signals to investors. Not a bad thought. But the government forgot that, in the final analysis, it will be judged by its ability to manage social contradictions: it needed to do the political hard work of building a broad social coalition.
Now, every NGO and Opposition party is jumping on the resistance to the land acquisition bill. Two dialectics are possible: the rough and tumble of opposition could produce a better bill. But what is equally likely is that the government loses face and destroys its political capital. It would be better off making sensible compromises that can square a triangle, as it were. We need a bill that can do three things: withstand legal scrutiny, allow industrialisation, but genuinely protect farmers and affected parties.
But the larger issue is this: is there a developmental model possible that can have a broad social coalition behind it? Each class potentially has a veto power if mobilised sufficiently. What will be the social contract that overcomes this polarisation? Perhaps this is better resolved at the level of the states. But the land conflict will be the test of what artful politics looks like. Both the BJP and the AAP will have to be careful not to overplay their hand. A precondition of governance is recognising that your own virtue and dogma are no substitutes for cross-class negotiations. Many a leader has forgotten that. The irony of politics is that it is often easier to take leave of your senses than it is to take a leave of absence.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’