In an era of near-complete separation between politics and ethics, Nitish Kumar has attempted to cultivate the image of a politician driven by his conscience. At certain times and in certain quarters he has succeeded. To those who saw the Janata Dal (United) leader as genuinely and unusually principled, his decision to ally, once, again, with the Bharatiya Janata Party is a severe disappointment.

Many of Kumar’s admirers, in Bihar and beyond, saw in him the most – or only – plausible leader of a national anti-BJP coalition of which the Bihar mahagathbandhan, or grand alliance, might be a forerunner. To them, his rapprochement with Narendra Modi is a tragedy, both for Kumar himself and for the country. But, viewed in the context of Kumar’s career as a whole, and of the evolving landscape of Indian politics, this betrayal is little surprise, and no tragedy either.

Kumar does have reasonable claims to morality, especially by comparison with his peers. He is personally clean, free from the encumbrance of family, and a focused administrator. He has demonstrated a generalised concern for the welfare of his citizens, which goes beyond mere electoral politics, and neither he nor his party are religious bigots. But the fact that he is not himself either corrupt or bigoted does not make him any kind of principled opponent of corruption or bigotry. He is willing to ally with either or both when it suits him.

Kumar’s attitude to corruption and secularism reflects the true relationship between his politics and ethics. Ideally, political principles should follow from ethical imperatives. For Kumar, this relationship is reversed. He modifies his ethics to suit his politics rather than the other way around. Opportunistic political manoeuvres, from his multiple alliance changes to his imposition of prohibition, are justified through moral narratives. This one is only different in that his moral justification, that he is joining with the BJP to fight corruption, is likely to convince fewer people than usual.

Ideological flexibility

The claim that Kumar had any record as a principled secularist depends upon the tenuous assumption that the BJP has only become a Hindutva party under Modi. The BJP under Atal Bihari Vajpayee never had a majority at the Centre, and may have been more moderate in some respects, but it was unmistakably a party of Hindu nationalism rather than secularism. Kumar was Union Minister for Railways from 2001 to 2004, in the Vajpayee government. He did not resign his ministry when Modi was retained as Gujarat chief minister after the riots of 2002. Nor did he have any qualms about partnering with Lal Krishna Advani, the person who did more than any other to make Hindutva a national political force. Kumar might have once regarded Modi as morally beyond the pale and politically toxic, but he was never a true opponent of Hindutva.

Kumar started out as a Lohiaite socialist, but the consistent theme of his career is his ideological flexibility in the pursuit of power, a flexibility necessitated both by his unwillingness to yield power and by his inability to acquire it on his own. He has partnered with everyone from the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) to the BJP to the Congress. Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav was justified in mocking his performances in the elections he has contested alone: having never built a robust party organisation or sustainable social base, Kumar is forever dependent upon institutionally stronger partners. When one outlives its usefulness – for political, not moral reasons – he chooses another.

This is why Kumar’s latest change of partner is not a surprise, which is a precondition for disappointment. But nor is it any kind of tragedy: not for Kumar himself, not for the people of Bihar, or for the republic as a whole.

No tragedy

For Kumar and for Bihar, the closest thing to a real tragedy was his reunion with Lalu Prasad Yadav in 2014. Earlier, Kumar’s central claim to ethical politics and to statesmanship was the narrative, more true than false, that he had inherited from Yadav a “jungle raj” (a term he popularised) in which state capacity was corroded from top to bottom, and then restored to Bihar a meaningful degree of law and order and administrative efficiency. Kumar acquired power by promising to be the anti-Lalu Yadav and was re-elected in 2010.

Kumar’s most credible, stable and administratively successful years in power were in happy partnership with BJP leader Sushil Modi. From the perspective of Bihar’s own welfare, this partnership is preferable in almost every sense to Kumar’s always uneasy coexistence with the Yadav clan. That is not to suggest that Kumar and Sushil Modi will now simply resume where they left off in 2013, when Kumar walked out of a 17-year-long alliance with the saffron party. Kumar is much weaker now politically, and the BJP needs him less both in Bihar and nationally. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are concerned with BJP dominance, not long-term coalition politics. In many states – Andhra Pradesh is a rare exception – they aim to expand the BJP’s footprint at the expense of their ally, in effect eating the ally’s voteshare from the inside.

Kumar is surely aware that this may happen to him and the Janata Dal (United) eventually. His embrace of such a partnership shows how dimly he viewed his prospects within the mahagathbandhan. It is an acceptance of political diminishment – from a would-be national rival to Narendra Modi to a vassal of the BJP, far less influential within the National Democratic Alliance than he was before 2013. But even such an alliance is likely to govern Bihar better than the mahagathbandhan did. Those who claim that this is some sort of murder of democracy should ask themselves what would have happened had the Janata Dal (United) and the BJP contested elections together in 2015.

In one sense, Bihar is genuinely poorer for this sequence of events. From 2005-2013, Kumar may have been a National Democratic Alliance chief minister, but he was respected and trusted by a large proportion of Bihar’s Muslims, who make up nearly 17% of the state’s population. By allying with Narendra Modi, he has sacrificed that trust, perhaps permanently, and may be less equipped to check attempts at communal polarisation by the BJP and its subsidiaries.

Glimpse of an opportunity

But for the country as a whole, and especially for those who value secularism, Kumar’s return to the National Democratic Alliance may be more opportunity than tragedy. The mahagathbandhan represented the latest, and hopefully last, attempt to craft a coalition of so-called secular forces. Since the BJP’s rise to national prominence with the Ram Janambhoomi movement in the early 1990s, the unity of secular forces has been used to justify all manner of politician and alliance.

Appeals to secularism as such have rarely been a grassroots political strategy in India, except when courting minorities. The term “secular forces” is, rather, a fraudulent moral narrative, grafted on to alliances of convenience and cheered on by useful idiots in the press and academia. It was always a moral dead end for Indian politics, and may now be a political one too.

These claims of secular unity damaged both the cause of Indian secularism and the quality of our governance. The premise behind the term “secular forces” was that any non-Hindutva party was secular. This legitimised a great deal of what can justifiably be called “pseudo-secularism”, and actually retarded the emergence of any genuine secularism. Thus we had the secularism of Rajiv Gandhi – which brought India the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, a law to overturn the Supreme Court’s Shah Bano judgement (which held that Muslim men need to provide alimony to their former wives after divorce), the unlocking of the gates of the Babri Masjid to allow Hindus to pray there, and the ban on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. India also saw the anti-Hindutva communal polarisation of Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav, a secularism in which politicians courted imams rather than work to improve the dignity or material wellbeing of members of the Muslim community. In 2005, a year of two Assembly elections in Bihar, first Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan and then Lalu Prasad Yadav employed the services of Meraj Khalid Noor – whose claim to fame is that he is said to resemble Osama bin Laden – to woo Muslim voters. When Noor defected from Paswan to Yadav, the Rashtriya Janata Dal leader declared, in triumph: “Paswanji ka Bin Laden Osama mere pas aa gaya.

The term “secular forces” was also used to launder some of Indian politics’ dodgiest characters. Outside Bihar, the morally appalling and administratively chaotic reign of Lalu Prasad Yadav was constantly defended on the grounds that by arresting Advani and halting his rath yatra in 1990 he had proven himself secular. By using a dubious definition of secularism to justify absolutely anything, Hindutva’s opponents ended up devaluing secularism.

As the rationale for alliances, the so-called secular forces represented the triumph of opportunism over ideology. This worked for a time as Indian politics outside the Hindutva fold became steadily less ideological. In large parts of the country, there is no party other than the BJP with a discernible ideology: no party with a coherent or consistent set of answers to big questions of morality or public policy. Now that the nationally dominant political party is one united by ideology, the ideological bankruptcy of the so-called secular forces is a liability.

(Left to right) Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal (United) and Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal in April 2015. (Photo credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP).

Looking ahead

Kumar is, by any measure, one of the least ideologically committed politicians in India today. As a prospective Opposition leader, he did have some strengths: he is adaptive, pragmatic, capable both of behind-the-scenes manipulation and a direct relationship to the voter. He is socially grounded in a way young dynasts are not. He may not be a principled secularist, but he used to have the old Congress advantage of not excluding any social group.

But it does not follow that he was ever the right person to be a nation-wide alternative to Narendra Modi. Modi combines organisational skill and personal charisma on a scale without obvious precedent while Kumar has never been close to being able to win elections on his own. Modi is ideologically rooted and expert at crafting moral narratives that voters find credible. Kumar has no compelling narrative at all to offer voters outside Bihar.

What Kumar offered, and the source of his appeal to his non-Bihari admirers, was his supreme not-badness. To appropriate Dag Hammarskjold’s definition of the mission of the United Nations, Kumar was the man to save us from Hell, not bring us to Heaven. He might have made a fine prime minister, even if he never looked likely to find his way there. At a time when most politicians appear either malevolent or incompetent or both, he was neither.

But we can and should expect more from our politicians than not-badness. Modi’s BJP can only be taken on with moral and ideological counter-narratives, not cynical short-term social coalitions that are justified as secular forces. And Nitish Kumar was not the man to offer that kind of alternative.