Nitish Kumar is another political species altogether; he zealously guards his “clean” image and his son, Nishant, not only shows no interest in politics but stays away from the spotlight. (Nitish’s detractors claim this is because Nishant does not approve of his father’s romantic entanglement with the sister of a certain politician. This, however, is the stuff of unsubstantiated gossip.)
Thirty years after a Swedish Radio broadcast broke the scandal (April 16, 1987), Bofors is still with us, although the key players are long gone. Republic TV last week reprised an interview with the chief investigator of the case, Sten Lindstorm, in which he confirmed payoffs to political bigwigs. So effectively did the scam capture the public imagination, that even now, Bofors is a synonym for illicit commissions. (“Subsidy was Rs 100 but I got only Rs 80. Beech me Bofors ho gaya”). Yet, when it comes to elections, corruption has rarely influenced the outcome.
The question of whether corruption has any resonance with voters is at the heart of the current Bihar imbroglio. Chief minister Nitish Kumar must decide whether to continue his alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal, despite the charges of corruption against Lalu Prasad Yadav’s clan. If he breaks with Lalu, will the electorate reward him for prioritising clean government over votebank politics?
All through the post-Mandal era of the 1990s and the long phase of coalition politics thereafter, major scandals rocked successive governments at the state and centre. Several politicians who accumulated wealth without any apparent source of income continued to win elections. The late J Jayalalithaa was a case in point; she became chief minister even after being convicted, jailed and fined Rs 100 crore for income tax violations.
Financial integrity carried no premium in politics; even “clean” politicians backed “dirty” ones, saying that corruption was not a political issue. Corruption and criminality were thus excused on ideological grounds. It was acceptable for a political leader to be casteist and corrupt and acommodate criminals in his party, provided he was ‘secular’. The abuse of political power to cover up acts of corruption was accepted by liberal politicians, with a fatalistic shrug and the contention “who isn’t corrupt”? Thus, Lalu Prasad Yadav remained a hero despite being jailed in the Rs 940 crore fodder scam, while L K Advani – who resigned as MP over allegations of a payoff of Rs 3 lakh – was the perpetual villain, for his role in the Babri Masjid demolition.
The Big Break came in 2011, when social activist Anna Hazare launched his India Against Corruption movement. He galvanized the apathetic Indian middle-classes, who emerged in their tens of thousands to back Hazare’s fast for a Lokpal Bill aimed at checking corruption in government. The series of scams that had exploded across the front pages during the UPA regime overshadowed its manyl achievements.
For the first time since Bofors, corruption had become a political issue. The movement died down but the after-effects lingered and a squeaky clean politician became Prime Minister in 2014. Communalism had become a non-issue at best and at worst, a pseudo-secular conspiracy to perpetuate corrupt regimes. The centre-left, having encouraged or ignored corruption for decades, had no one but themselves to blame.
Yet, in 2015, when super-clean Nitish Kumar allied with the scam-tainted Lalu Yadav in the Bihar assembly elections, they rode to a thumping victory. ‘Mr Clean’ Nitish had trumped ‘Mr Clean’ Narendra Modi, despite the burden of an ‘unclean’ ally. By that time, Modi had his own baggage: a BJP minister and chief minister were alleged to have facilitated travel documents for the absconding scam-accused businessman Lalit Modi. Congressmen say that it would be sheer hypocrisy for Nitish to break with Lalu now, having allied with him despite his track record.
But Nitish’s standards have nothing in common with those of his political allies. The Congress, which has the highest stakes but the least significant role in the mahagathbandhan, is comfortable with Lalu Yadav. Allegations of corruption and dynasticism have never come in the way of the love-fest between the two, because it’s the one thing they have in common. Nitish Kumar is another political species altogether; he zealously guards his “clean” image and his son, Nishant, not only shows no interest in politics but stays away from the spotlight. (Nitish’s detractors claim this is because Nishant does not approve of his father’s romantic entanglement with the sister of a certain politician. This, however, is the stuff of unsubstantiated gossip.)
And that may be why Nitish backed Ram Nath Kovind for President, rather than the less credible Opposition nominee Meira Kumar. Likewise, his moral compass swings in favour of the Opposition’s purer-than-driven-snow Gopal Krishna Gandhi, rather than the NDA’s M Venkaiah Naidu, for vice-president.
As one of the two regional leaders who has proved capable of halting the BJP juggernaut in its tracks, Nitish is an asset the Opposition can ill-afford to lose. On the other hand, no Opposition leader currently has the moral authority to tell Lalu that his son must resign as deputy CM until his name is cleared. Only Nitish can do that.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.