A conscience without power achieves little for the people. Power without conscience ruins the moral core of a democracy.
If this idea sounds too complex and unfit for the squelchy swamp of Bihar's electoral politics, perhaps we need to turn to Nitish Kumar for simplification. Because Nitish's past two weeks offer a lesson in how to walk through the mud without getting your pyjamas
and conscience dirty.
Young Nitish learned from independent India's ultimate man of conscience: Jay Prakash Narayan. JP, like Mahatma Gandhi, did not want power for himself. He wished to be the lighthouse for the powerful who would keep serving the people. That did not work well in 1977 with Morarji Desai. That did not save VP Singh in 1990, when he called upon the BJP and the Communists to save his little government and failed. No one votes according to antaratma ki awaz
. And if India's OBCs with their overwhelming majority really wanted a God, why would they need a Thakur Raja Saheb
to do it? They had their own leaders, the latest at the time being Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar.
There are three elements that decide if a leader or party can successfully engage in conscience politics: lack of enough votes to come to power and stay in government, a lack of desire to make money from power, and belief in the role of morality in public life.
After coming to power by stealth in March 1990, Lalu promptly showed he had interest in only one aspect of power: money. Once he made sure he would hold on to enough votes to remain in power, he was a free man to pursue his primary goal, unburdened by sticky issues such as honesty and the obligation to use power for public good.
Before 2005, Nitish did not have the luxury of this self-serving clarity. He already had a reputation for probity but he did not have the votes. His honesty - which most don't doubt today - was then like a clean municipal worker yet to do the sewage shift. Nitish's moral self too was shiny as he defined it against the sullied Lalu.
Acts of moral strength such as resigning as Railway Minister after a train accident in Gaisal (West Bengal), in 1999, in which 340 people were killed would not count in Bihar, where ministers steal sacks of dal-chawal from childrens' mid-day school meals and fodder from cows.
Once Nitish came to power in Bihar in 2005, his character truly mattered. He had the votes, he had the keys to the treasury, he had an ocean of poor, suffering people and a middle class on its knees. For nearly two terms, he ruled the swamp and proved himself on all three points: he was re-elected, he showed no lure of personal riches, and he kept his moral core intact.
Above all, Nitish used power well as the only Bihar politician who thought of and worked for women's welfare, who spotted the gap between the top elite and the desperately poor bottom quarter among OBCs and acted on it.
In recent weeks, there has been criticism that Nitish can and does anything for power. That he is amoral and an opportunist. But then how do you do anything for the people if you are not in power? How do you save Bihar's women from the scourge of hooch without first getting their vote? You don't join politics for a life-time supply of free dahi-chooda
Nitish has indeed overplayed his conscience card since 2014 to project himself above the fray while cutting deals across party and ideological lines. In the process, he has made poor decisions like quitting as Chief Minister after the JDU's setback in the last Lok Sabha polls, and, as a consequence, giving Lalu a sniff of power again. All this for the idea of a secular India? Or in the hope of being Prime Minister one day?
Nitish has now also broken a pre-poll pact to from a new government with BJP without a fresh election. Has he not assaulted a core value of the democratic system? He has. But has he duped the people?
It turns out none of this really matters from the point of view of the needy Bihari. Bihar can't afford to be the conscience-keeper of India, especially when it could mean empowering Lalu to revert to the hopeless 15 years before 2005.
The well-meaning people sitting in Delhi or Bengaluru must allow Bihar one more selfish act.
If you believe in Nitish's essential goodness, let him finish his term, or let the BJP pull him down with its undisguised social agenda. If you can't let go of your highest democratic principles, take a moment to assess the damage rotten corruption and nepotism of Lalu have done to the liberal and secular cause in India.(Bhawesh Mishra is a freelance journalist. Born and educated in Bihar, he now lives in London and Singapore)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.