THE PURSUIT OF a higher goal or principle in politics and governance has periodically animated India’s intellectual discourse even as day-to-day politics has often been mired in cynical, short-sighted deal-making. It is indeed an odd subject to consider in today’s polarised times where one side claims the sun is setting (if it has not already set) on India’s democracy and the other accuses opponents of being negativists and poor losers. Yet, the moral-spiritual aspects of ‘dharma’ in political life are hard to dismiss perhaps because the principal combatants say they are fighting a “righteous” war despite the falling standards of debate that increasingly take a cue from trolling and selective truths gleaned from social media rather than fact and argumentation.
Recently, Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis addressed the dilemma in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ranks about Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Ajit Pawar joining the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). How can an alliance with a leader from a party the BJP cadre has opposed tooth-and-nail be justified? NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule, clearly upset by the vivisection of the party, put it squarely in Lok Sabha when she reminded BJP leaders that they had labelled NCP a “naturally corrupt party” while campaigning in her Baramati constituency. BJP owed an explanation, she said, as it is now sharing power with some NCP leaders (led by her uncle). Just a little later, also at an event in Maharashtra, the home minister welcomed Ajit Pawar, saying he was finally in the right quadrant. “Dada, aap ne aate bahut der kar di (Dada, you took a long time to come over),” he said. In the not-too-distant past, the previous BJP-Shiv Sena government had launched investigations against the NCP leader. More importantly, BJP consistently accused NCP of a communalised approach to law and order apart from being seeped in corruption. Fadnavis had taken the lead in attacking Anil Deshmukh, former Maharashtra home minister and NCP leader, in a row over bribery allegations when the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) was in office.
What BJP did when it joined hands with Ajit Pawar, said Fadnavis, was not “adharma”. It was “kootniti”, a term often translated to mean diplomacy or diplomatic action. This translation is inadequate, as the term lends itself to subtler shades that suggest elements of subterfuge. Hindwi.org provides a more satisfying meaning, explaining kootniti to mean “daav-pench (manoeuvre)” or “gehri chaal (crafty move)”. One can swallow an insult or two, Fadnavis told BJP workers in Bhiwandi, but accepting betrayal was not an option. To put it in a nutshell, BJP first got even with the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena for breaking an alliance after state elections and then joined hands with Ajit Pawar who was smarting over having to play second fiddle to Sule. Should BJP have wrung its hands and sought the moral high ground? None of the commentators who criticised BJP’s “power grab” would have by a line acknowledged that the party has been wronged. Rather, BJP would have continued to attract derision while its rivals used their perch in government to entrench themselves and damage the saffron party’s prospects. This is the hard and immutable reality of politics, an arena where no one does the other any favour and no punches are pulled. So, as Fadnavis put it, BJP wrested back a mandate it had been cheated of and struck a “political friendship” with Dada. Will this deliver an electoral dividend? Time will tell. But in the meanwhile, the BJP brass decided that sitting it out on the sidelines was not option at all.
The association of dharma and politics is ancient, rooted in Sanskrit texts and the Vedas. As many commentators have noted, dharma lends itself to varying interpretations that include the more literal meaning, such as religion or religiosity and faith, and less tangible concepts such as duty and righteousness. While defining a moral universe, dharma can also be seen as a differentiated calling—there is a rajdharma for rulers and one for a class or individual. The omnibus Sanatan Dharma is often read as a set of eternal principles that guide conduct. Considering Sanatan Dharma as a set of values might be an even better enunciation of the belief system and its universalistic and wider connotation. Mahatma Gandhi saw dharma as duty even as he felt it transcended religious boundaries appealing as it did to inner truths of human existence. He did also see it in practical terms. Satyagraha was a means to action that eschewed the use of violence, and sought to create a moral force that cannot be denied. In the early years of India’s independence, Jawaharlal Nehru was motivated by a sense of a moral mission when it came to non-alignment. In later years, this became a dogmatic affair and an unctuousness crept into Indian thinking that prevented clear-headed decision-making and which many nations found frustrating. A basic objective that guides all governments is a desire to retain office and governance is geared to deliver this goal. But it is the leader or party that conveys a larger sense of purpose that has a stronger grip on the public imagination. The Vajpayee government that quit after 13 days in 1996 was no doubt isolated, but the leader’s speech in Lok Sabha succeeded in highlighting BJP’s ideals and the power lust of its opponents. The principles of just war can indeed be applied to politics as well. In 1971, India fought a just war against Pakistan which led to the birth of Bangladesh and was validated by a majority for Indira Gandhi. A moral conviction in one’s cause does matter and can even pay dividends rather than being an abstract principle.
What BJP did when it joined hands with Ajit Pawar, said Fadnavis, was not ‘adharma’. It was ‘kootniti,’ a term often translated to mean diplomacy or diplomatic action. This translation is inadequate, as the term lends itself to subtler shades that suggest elements of subterfuge
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NOT EVERY POLITICAL battle or the unseating of various governments need be seen through the prism of morality or a quest for an ennobling purpose. The cut-and-thrust of politics is as much about survival and acquisition as it is about anything else. Some moments do, however, require closer examination. In 2008, then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress outflanked the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) and its doctrinaire General Secretary Prakash Karat by striking an alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP) when the Left opposed the India-US nuclear deal. In an audacious switch, Congress junked the Left which was a key component of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) formed in 2004 after BJP’s unexpected ouster. As Karat refused to consider India engaging with the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in keeping with his ideological opposition to closer ties with the US, Congress looked at SP as a partner. In his book, former Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said China utilised its close connections with the Left parties to build opposition to the nuclear deal and while this is a different story it does have some bearings on the discussion at hand. Manmohan Singh had made it clear to top Congress and UPA leaders that he was not willing to continue if the nuclear deal was stalled. A no-trust vote that saw three BJP MPs waving bundles of cash claiming they were sought to bribed was settled in favour of UPA. The Left and BJP voted on the same side but to no avail.
It is easy to see the 2008 vote as a particularly sordid instance of vote-garnering and manipulative politics. The truth is that Manmohan Singh had grown increasingly weary with the Left’s constant hectoring on all sorts of issues and a policy veto they imposed on UPA’s functioning. The formation of the UPA government was accompanied with the Planning Commission being stuffed with leftist academics (some currently on a prolonged sabbatical in the US) and Congress had to put up with lectures and admonitions delivered daily by CPI and CPM leaders on primetime television. With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see how crucial the India-US nuclear deal was to India’s national fortunes. It ended India’s nuclear isolation after decades of technology denial despite an exemplary nuclear proliferation record. Ironically enough, it did not deliver the anticipated commerce for the US nuclear industry but it did provide a waiver from NSG that enabled trade with its member nations. The sleazy aspect of the 2008 vote cannot be brushed aside but there was indeed a larger national interest involved, one that justified the tactics used to win the vote. The government of the day would have erred in not adhering to its dharma if it had not stood up to the Left’s pernicious blackmail. The decision got a thumbs-up in the 2009 polls when voters recognised the resolve the Manmohan Singh government displayed. BJP failed to acknowledge that the nuclear deal was a progression of the India-US Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) ushered in by the Vajpayee government and instead allowed itself to be guided by Cold War hawks.
In 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress outflanked CPM by striking an alliance with the Samajwadi Party when the Left opposed the India-US nuclear deal
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Given the inevitable exceptions that pragmatic politics demands, the pursuit of corruption cases demands a consistent commitment if it is to win public approval. Public opinion has been rightly sceptical as regards the ability of governments to check and combat corruption. The sense of doubt is well-founded given the prevalence of graft in governance. The actions of investigative and enforcement agencies are being said to be guided by political directives to target opponents of the Modi government. Comparisons can be odious but if indeed agencies are a handle of the government, it will pay to remember that CBI cases against the late SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati waxed and waned but were never concluded. It helped ensure political support when it was needed. The argument whether the action of agencies is one-sided will not be settled merely by the accusation that no ruling party member is being investigated. The argument that those switching sides can make a difference (as in the case of Ajit Pawar) needs more thought. It can be said to indicate a moral equivalence or a necessity of politics. The day has to be won in order to fight again the next day. A more unforgiving view will differ.
PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI’S credibility and popular appeal rests in part on the absence of any serious allegation of corruption in high places. It is also bolstered by decisions that not only improve transparency but also take on vested interests that have been part of a gravy train. Cases pursued by various agencies have not been thrown out by the courts and commentators sometimes forget that major graft probes during UPA’s tenure were the result of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) reports and court orders. The Supreme Court did cancel 2G allocations and decided to monitor the coal scam. The current investigations can be seen to discomfit several opposition parties but the battle has wider implications. It is no less a dharma yudh, depending on how one chooses to frame the conflict. Public opinion supports what it sees as credible efforts to end or curb corruption even if it may not be the only reason for supporting party A or B. So-called governance issues can compete or clash with caste and regional affiliations and the results are not always predictable. Kicking the hornet’s nest does require courage given that rivals will not hesitate to extract revenge if elections do not go the way of the ruling party.
Vajpayee’s government that quit after 13 days in 1996 was no doubt isolated, but his speech in Lok Sabha succeeded in highlighting BJP’s ideals and the power lust of its opponents
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The cacophony of public life obscures the line of dharma and often enough the immediate overshadows all else. The political battle may well be seen as how each side interprets dharma and the choices it entails. There is a public morality that voters recognise and their decision is a verdict and a message. Contrary to narratives of “democratic backsliding”, India’s democracy is alive and vibrant. When India votes, the result reflects its soul and dharmic identity. And it cannot be that a fractured result reflects ‘diversity’ and a majority is not inclusive. Neither politics nor dharma bends to ideological preferences.