Aturn of phrase can mark the turn of events in politics. ‘National interest’ and ‘public interest’ lead the chase in striking unholy political alliances and forging opportunistic partnerships—principles be damned. Power-hungry individuals and organizations who are ideologically sworn enemies grab position, post, pelf and power in the name of public interest and also betray each other citing the same. Last week, the BJP exited the coalition government led by PDP boss Mehbooba Mufti in Jammu and Kashmir, declaring her political stance was not in the national or public interest, exactly 38 months after they contracted political nikah to keep the National Conference and the Congress out of power in Kashmir. On March 1, 2015, the Prime Minister had tweeted, “PDP-BJP govt is a historic opportunity to fulfil the aspirations of the people of J&K and take the State to new heights of progress”.
The voters had not given a clear mandate to any party. While the PDP emerged as the largest single party, the BJP had come second, followed by NC and the INC. The poll war between the freshly fraternal BJP and the PDP was excoriatingly vicious and vitriolic; however, all was forgiven and forgotten in the promised glow of power. The PDP, which the BJP had considered pro-radical, was morphed into a trusted ally in its war on terror and for ensuring equitable development of Jammu. For the PDP, the consummately communal BJP became a sudden saviour in its fight for “Insaniyat, Kashmiriyat and Jamhooriyat”.
When the coalition collapsed, it was over the predictable accusations of betraying public interest. The cruel comedy was that the BJP, which had been claiming proud parenthood for a successful month-long Ramzan ceasefire in the Valley, cited the rise in terror incidents in Kashmir as a reason for withdrawing support. In fact, more civilians, defence and police personnel have died in the past few months than during the same period last year. Collusion was disguised as coalition—more Central funds have been pumped into J&K in the past three years than ever before and the state has withdrawn more cases against stone pelters and similar young mutinous Kashmiris than any previous government.
Modi is the first Indian prime minister to celebrate Diwali twice in Kashmir—during his first Diwali visit in 2014, he had announced a special package of Rs 570 crore for flood relief. Even the security-related expenditure showed a huge spurt. The state government was reimbursed Rs 1,185 crore during 2016-17, which is more than the total amount reimbursed during the previous four years. But none of his gestures, financial and political, cut much ice with separatists and terrorists in the land of ice and snow.
The BJP-PDP marriage broke up under the weight of its own contradictions that conflicted over the partners’ interpretation of the idea of public and national interest. Mehbooba Mufti saw the protection, pandering to and promotion of the PDP’s pro-Pak and extremist core constituency as acting in the public interest. On the other hand, for the Modi-led Union government, neutralizing terrorists and dismantling anti-India institutions and organisations was the foundation of protecting the national and public interest. The former frenemies had ignored such genealogical disparities when forming the government and the festering friction finally proved fatal.
The rise and fall of the J&K government symbolises the crass misuse of the lofty principle of healthy democracy where political parties swear to serve in the national and public interest. As the quality of leadership and composition of parties become infested with greed, public interest is the victim. Conviction is a matter of convenience as the contours of public interest vary according to the variety and quantity of the crumbs of power.
For example, in Karnataka last month, vituperative poll foes the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) outsmarted the BJP in forming the government. JD(S) chief HD Deve Gowda, who had become prime minister in 1997, chose to forget he was deposed by the Congress once. In May, when he got a call from 10 Janpath offering the chief ministership to son HD Kumaraswamy, Gowda rewrote the definition of public interest with the quill of self-interest. He had the propitious revelation that his party couldn’t betray the people by refusing to shoulder a mandated responsibility.
Sources close to him claimed that a month before the elections, Gowda had made architectural alterations to his New Delhi residence, such as changing the entry points and more, on the advice of vastu experts to invite in favourable political winds. The scuttlebutt is he told a corporate contact that the JD(S) would win only 37-40 seats but he would be happy to wed any party which supported his son for chief minister. Clearly, the son’s interest coincided with dad’s perception of public interest. For now, Karnataka’s political yoga dictates that the Congress share JD(S)’s position on flexible and floating public interest.
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, parties are rediscovering the definition of national and state interest. Various factions of the AIADMK are either dumping or hugging each other to protect the public interest. Politically aspirational film stars Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth are scouring the political dictionaries for a suitable definition. Haasan finds the Congress an interested party, while Rajini seems to be interested in the BJP. In Andhra Pradesh, it surprisingly took over three years for the revelation to dawn upon Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu that he was flouting public interest by staying with the NDA.
Last year, Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, who wears morality on his sleeve, dumped his governing partner and ‘Bade Bhai’ Lalu Prasad’s RJD, prompted by the fortuitous epiphany that the coalition was not conducive to the public interest. Previously Nitish had quit the NDA in 2002, blaming Narendra Modi and the Gujarat riots. Last year, the Bihari babu embraced ‘bahari’ Modi to form a coalition with the politically amnesiac BJP, which had earlier accused him of minority appeasement, corruption and inefficient governance. In Bihar, caste compulsions and social affiliations influence the composition of public interest.
It is evident that from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, chalk is becoming cheese as Indian politicians invoke public interest to conceal their ideological inadequacies instead of promoting credible governance. India is heading towards an ominous horizon where the public may lose faith in the philosophy of public interest and perhaps, eventually even in democracy.