Recently, among the parties which supported the NDA candidate for the post of Rajya Sabha deputy chairman, Harivansh Narayan Singh, were the Shiv Sena, BJD and JD(U). This election has shown that in the Upper House — where the BJP needs allies for being in a majority — some parties do not necessarily vote according to the ideological principles they articulate in public. Such a gap between principle and practice is not new and may even be taken for granted in politics. In India, the contradiction between proclaimed faith in secularism and actual collaboration with communal forces has been a case in point for decades.
The brand of anti-Congressism initiated by Ram Manohar Lohia brought together socialists and Jana Sangh leaders in 1963; the post-1967 election SVD governments were supported by the socialists, Jana Sanghis, Charan Singh’s BKD and communists; the Janata Party experiment was possible because these groups (minus the CPI) as well as ex-Congress (O) merged together; and in the other Janata episode, the VP Singh government was supported in 1989 by the CPM as well as BJP.
What is interesting in the recent election of Harivansh Narayan Singh is the way parties which were not even part of the NDA referred to ideology in order to show their consistency. The BJD, for instance, which had left the NDA in 2009 partly in the name of secularism — because of the Kandhamal anti-Christian riots — explained that it supported the JD(U) candidate because “the JD(U) and BJD have similar ideological origins — emerging from the Jayaprakash Narayan movement”.
Focusing on the JD(U) helps to make sense of this tension between the ideal and practical face of politics. Indeed, the party chief, Nitish Kumar, has probably emphasised his attachment to secularism more than any other state leader for more than a decade. He insisted that communal bones of contention be excluded from the NDA agenda in 2004. While the Atal Bihari Vajpayee line was attacked by Hindu nationalist leaders who attributed the BJP’s defeat to its moderation in the 2004 elections, the National Executive Committee of the JD(U), in August 2004, issued a resolution against any doctrinal change: “We joined the National Democratic Alliance only after the three controversial issues (construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya, Article 370 and Uniform Civil Code) had been removed from the agenda of the NDA. If any effort is now made to revive them, we shall have to take another road”.
In 2013, despite the fact that the BJP had not changed its attitude vis-à-vis these issues, Nitish left the NDA. This decision took place after a 17-year partnership and a week after Narendra Modi was made the party’s campaign committee chairman. Nitish, who had just declared in a newspaper interview that prime ministerial candidates should have “secular” credentials, referred again to his principles: “We decided not to compromise on our basic principles and whatever happens I am not worried about the consequences”.
The new partner of the JD(U) was the CPM, but their alliance won only 2 seats out of 40, against 31 to the BJP-LJP alliance. (In 2002, the LJP leader, Ram Vilas Paswan, had left the NDA in reaction to the Gujarat communal violence, but returned to the BJP-led grouping in 2014, when Paswan became a Union minister). Then the JD(U) merged with the Kerala-based Socialist Janata (Democratic) party and finally joined hands in 2015 with the RJD and Congress. This Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) allowed Nitish to become chief minister again. But it did not last more than 20 months: In July 2017, Nitish returned to the NDA and remained chief minister with the BJP’s support.
This trajectory suggests that secular principles really matter only when they are compatible with political interest. First, the JD(U) leaders considered that their party could never retain Bihar without a section of the so-called “Muslim vote”. This is probably why Nitish had returned the flood relief aid Modi had announced for Bihar as Gujarat CM in 2010. According to Bihar Disaster Management Minister Divesh Chand Thakur, “It was not in keeping with JD(U)’s secular image”. Modi could not even campaign in Bihar in 2009 for the Lok Sabha election and in 2010 for the state election, even though both JD(U) and BJP were part of the NDA. The same DC Thakur explained that it was due to the Gujarat CM’s “anti-secular image”. This image ceased to be a problem, however, when the JD(U) needed the BJP’s support for governing Bihar.
This kind of opportunism has two effects. First, citizens have developed cynicism vis-à-vis a political discourse based on values. Politicians’ lack of ideological credibility is one reason why voters are attracted by newcomers who have one quality no one can deny: They were not part of the political class that betrayed its own ideals. These new leaders also do not articulate value-based ideologies, but identity-based ideologies. They claim they will defend the ethnic majority against threats from domestic minorities or/and neighbouring countries. This form of majoritarian populism is affecting Europe, the Americas and Asia, especially when democratic institutions grant enough space, paradoxically, for articulating an ethnic demagoguery.
In many countries, this pathology of politics develops with the tacit or active support of leaders who claim that they defend democratic values but who prefer to bargain and get the kursi instead of defending their ideology. In a federation, state parties are even less likely to follow principles. First, they may be fighting in their state the party they are supporting at the Centre — a confusing situation unlikely to result in doctrinal clarity. Second, they are particularly vulnerable when the ruling party does not need their support at the Centre: They may even be punished by the Union government if they “misbehave” (corruption charges can be framed, investigations may be initiated).
Third, state parties are also more likely to pay lip service to ideology and apply a transactional brand of politics because the only “ism” they know, usually, is “sub nationalism”: They hardly look at the national picture. Fourth, there is no debate within these parties since they are often family enterprises. As a result, state parties are gaining momentum at the expense of ideological commitments. In the short term, they get something in return by playing ball with a party whose ideology they don’t share, but they undermine democracy and take the risk of becoming redundant once the hegemon has taken over from them in their own pocket borough.