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Deconstructing Nitish Kumar’s secular credentials

Since the media has made a meal out of the Narendra Modi-Nitish Kumar rivalry, one can leave that issue to the people of India to settle in the next round of general elections.

However, since Nitish Kumar has raised the issue of a national leader’s “secular” credentials, we need to ask ourselves: what exactly do we mean by secularism?

In Kumar’s innuendo-ridden interview to The Economic Times, he loftily tries to set out the qualities he thinks an Indian prime minister should have. But a closer look suggests that he has constructed specifications that are intended to exclude only Modi.

This, unfortunately, is exactly the problem with Indian secularism — where a definition is created to fit an individual or a group of individuals, but never given a neutral quality where it will stand on its own.

These are Nitish Kumar’s ideal CV specifications for the prime ministership.

 Deconstructing Nitish Kumar’s secular credentials

Bihar CM Nitish Kumar. Reuters

At the outset, he says that the PM should have “secular credentials”. So far, so good. This is only a motherhood statement which no one can quarrel with.

But next, Kumar says that he should “not be someone who can develop developed states, but who has a feel for underdeveloped states”. What is the logic of this requirement? It is one thing to decry negative traits, quite another to exclude neutral or positive traits specifically. This is like saying that a PM should not have a moustache or be more than six feet tall. Should a Sharad Pawar or Jayalalithaa (both developers of developed states) not aspire to be PM? Or is the idea to exclude only Modi?

All of India’s early prime ministers came from “underdeveloped states” — Nehru, Shastri and Indira Gandhi. Did that do the underdeveloped states any good? By Nitish Kumar’s definition, no person from the south or western India should even try to become PM, since they come from the undeserving category of "developers of developed states".

Third, Kumar said the NDA’s “leader should be acceptable to every constituent of the alliance.” As a broad statement, this is fine. But if an alliance’s leader has to be acceptable to every party, including its tiniest ones, this will mean giving everyone the right to veto. In other words, the BJP can’t nominate its PM, but the minor parties can. This is like saying that companies must be run by CEOs appointed by minority shareholders only — a completely untenable proposition.

The requirement that the NDA should announce its PM candidate in advance is one of a piece with this illogic, since only if the candidate is known in advance can Nitish Kumar veto him or her.

Moreover, Nitish Kumar seems to suggest that the BJP should have no say in what happens in Bihar. In short, he (Nitish) should have a veto in deciding who will be BJP’s next boss, but the BJP cannot have a say in its own unit in Bihar. Nitish Kumar said: “The BJP has capable leaders in Bihar to lead the alliance's campaign. We don't need external assistance.” Just in case you haven’t got the message, he adds a hidden threat to the BJP: “If you want things to stay smooth, external forces should not be allowed to intervene.”

So, the BJP’s central leadership should have no say in how its Bihar wing should be run, since it is an “external force,” but Kumar as an “external force” should have a veto while selecting the BJP’s leader.

To be sure, Nitish Kumar has every right to target Modi or his secularism (or lack of it). He is also entitled to his own prime ministerial ambitions, but should he be allowed to get away with this kind of self-serving agenda that is devoid of political logic or principle?

After all, when he wants his own veto on the BJP’s leadership, can he also independently decide that he will back Pranab Mukherjee for president without giving the BJP or the NDA any say in this?

It is all right to rail about Modi’s authoritarian nature, but has Nitish Kumar really shown any democratic tendency in the way he is seeking a veto on the BJP’s leadership?

Of course, Nitish Kumar can reject Modi’s leadership of the NDA when and if that happens, but in trying to convey this through innuendo, he has only displayed his own hypocrisy. He has tried to define secularism as being not-Modi, not anything positive.

Consider his own contradictions on secularism:

The Godhra train burning incident happened during Nitish’s watch as railway minister. He didn’t do a thing — not even investigate it. This suggests that if his ministership is on the line, it is best to put up and shut up.

Nitish’s Janata Dal (U) is in partnership with the BJP in Bihar — a party that is widely dubbed as communal by the Left and the Congress. Nitish obviously thinks when he touches the BJP, the party automatically transforms into a secular force.

Kumar’s mentor is LK Advani, once an accused in the Babri demolition. Nitish flagged off Advani’s rath yathra against corruption last year. He was happy to have Advani as his prime ministerial candidate in 2009. Secularism — or what goes for it in India — did not matter then. Now it does.

The point is not to dub Advani as communal here, but to underline the Indian reality that secularism and communalism are labels used by politicians to suit their current political inclinations.

The UPA does not consider an alliance with specifically sectarian parties — like the Indian Union Muslim League, the Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen, or the Kerala Congress, or even various caste-based outfits like Lalu’s RJD or Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party — as communal.

On Tuesday, a TV news channel debate saw Asaduddin Owaisi of the Majlis criticise both Nitish Kumar and BJP for communalism. Owaisi saw no incongruity in a Muslims-only party calling the BJP and Nitish communal.

Nitish Kumar is merely giving further credence to this secular farce.

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Updated Date: Jun 21, 2012 18:18:51 IST