City City Bang Bang, Columns

Putting the National In Nationalism?

One of the key take-outs from the overwhelming victory won by Mr Modi is that there seems to be a clear separation of what is seen as a national imperative with what constitutes the local. The fact that the BJP lost so many states in the Hindi heartland and then within a year swept all of those is indicative of this. As is the fact that the TRS, did not do as well in spite of having won a crushing victory in the state elections just a few months ago, while Naveen Patnaik despite ceding ground to the BJP in the Lok Sabha election, managed to retain power in the state comfortably.

As this column argued last week, Mr Modi has emerged the only leader who is widely seen as the presumptive choice at the national level. The expectations centred around local alliances and alignments based on electoral arithmetic were comprehensively belied. The era of coalitions, where the national was in effect a patchwork quilt of many local forces, seems to have passed. It is not as if in the more distant past, national considerations did not override local factors, but in the post-Mandal world that we have been inhabiting, caste and regional factors have played a much larger role, as evidenced by the growing significance of regional parties in national politics in the last two decades.

The idea of the nation is all pervasive, but it is, in fact, a remarkably abstract idea to fully grasp. While there are sections of society that quite casually arrogate the mantle of being responsible for the ‘good of the nation’ to themselves, not everyone shares this privilege. The reason why caste and regional factors have played such a dominant role in Indian elections is in large measure because the idea of the national is too far removed from the immediate reality of a large section of society. For a leader to be national, the idea of the nation needs to be aggregated and made meaningful.

Mr Modi and the BJP grasp the need to concretise the idea of the nation far more astutely than other parties. National symbols were used as key instruments in making the sense of nationhood palpable. By defining one’s own vision of a nation, one is able to also lay down the parameters for being deemed nationalistic. The reason why the national flag, the singing of the national anthem and the aggressive espousal of Bharat Mata Ki Jai are such important parts of the party’s strategy has as much to do with creating a framework where the national takes priority as it is to drive a Hindutva agenda. The deliberate construction of a national identity needs a performative version of patriotism. Patriotism becomes a verb, to be enacted, using a certain protocol of actions and symbols, rather than a feeling to be experienced.

An idea like a country is best-grasped border-inwards. The nation is visualised as a territory and is defined by where it ends. The map gives us a sense of tangible presence and location, and it acts as a surrogate body. Threats at the border evoke fears of amputation and evoke strong emotional reactions. Equally, a feeling of belonging and oneness needs to clearly mark as to who has the right to be here rather than there, to be considered a friend or enemy, or an outsider as against an insider. Nationalism has many uses for it legitimises a lot, but its most fundamental utility is in making the idea of the nation much more real. For people in remote villages to vote for a leader believing that he is best suited to keep the country safe is extraordinary, for there are so many more pressing issues that their immediate lives are surrounded with. To privilege this reason over others, and to overlook their own personal distress and vote for a ‘national’ reason is quite remarkable.

Media has played a big role by seeing its own role not as a watchdog, but as a cheerleader. Instead of providing scrutiny, it amplifies that version of reality which it deems most patriotic. Today media takes the lead in promoting the idea that one should not ask questions, rather than being the one to ask the most inconvenient ones. By seeing itself as being the loudest proponents for the cause that is the nation, it walks away from its traditional role as the filter that sifts truth from lie, fact from puffery, critical analysis from hagiography. Popular culture has played its own role given the spate of films with patriotic themes. The nation here becomes a rallying point. How’s the Josh becomes like a Mexican wave that goes around the stadium that is the country. Patriotism becomes an elixir that makes us feel good about ourselves. It converts a high, noble ideal into a visceral drenching community experience.

The BJP’s Hindutva project too comfortably blurs the lines between religion and the nation. Hinduism is, after all, a way of life, and given its dominance in the country, it becomes the default mode for expressing all feelings, patriotism included. The use of Vande Mataram as a religio-nationalistic signifier and the ease with which Indian Muslims are conflated with Pakistan are examples of how these two different strands are made to converge to the BJP’s advantage.

The Congress in particular, in spite of being in power for decades and being the default ‘national’ party, does not, under its current leadership, really understand the importance of this form of nation-making. In any case, the Opposition’s best chance was to fragment the discourse and convert the national elections into a series of local contests. But that possibility was forestalled by years of work that have gone into making the idea of the national a living presence in the lives of people. Mr Modi has not only emerged as the only national leader, but he has also been able to define what the nation is, in his own likeness.


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