Pranab Bardhan writes: They must give up their silence and stop peddling soft Hindutva, which has only earned them contempt and ridicule.

Suhas Palshikar (‘Why opposition unity’, IE, September 4) has rightly asked for broader changes that any attempt at Opposition unity has to be based on, beyond just the tactics of winning elections. One of these major changes involves what he calls “effort at redefining nationalism”. In an IE piece two years ago (‘Un-civic nationalism’, October 12, 2019), I made the point that the Opposition is allowing the ruling party to hijack the idea of nationalism, and it is possible to envisage and restore an alternative, healthier form of nationalism. This article is mainly to elaborate on this idea.

The RSS-BJP idea of nationalism is based on a Hindu supremacist view, with a majoritarian religious community subordinating minorities and effectively turning them into second-class citizens. This is similar to the idea based on which Jinnah’s Muslim League formed Pakistan or Erdogan’s Islamic party is running Turkey, or, in an extreme form, the Nazis built the Third Reich in Germany. During our freedom struggle, Gandhiji and Tagore rejected this basis of nationalism. After Independence, we turned to a more inclusive form of nationalism based on the constitutional values of tolerance, respect for diversity and pluralism, and equal rights for all communities. This constitution-based nationalism was constructed not just by Nehru and Ambedkar, but also by Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad. At the time, the RSS objected to the Constitution because, as an editorial in Organiser pointed out, it was alien to the Manusmriti. Of course, it was alien, because otherwise, the Constitution would have to allow for caste discrimination and suppression of the rights of Dalits and women, as prescribed by the Laws of Manu.

The RSS, some leaders of which have in the past openly expressed their admiration for the “efficient” Nazi ways of organising and mobilising society, called our Constitution “western”. This was deliberately ignoring the long tradition of the Bhakti movement in different parts of India (not to speak of the Sufis), which promoted inter-faith harmony and syncretic values, quite often rebelling against Brahminical dominance and orthodoxy.

The idea of ethnicity- or religion-based nationalism is borrowed from the West. In the past, it has devastated many western societies and in recent years such narrow, intolerant, nostalgic, xenophobic nationalism has been resurgent in some countries — from the Christian nationalism of evangelicals in the US or of the Catholics in Poland or the Slavic Orthodox-church followers in Russia. In some other countries, an alternative form of nationalism prevails. Germany is a good example. Having been burned by the narrow ethnic kind under the Nazis, German nationalism, by and large, has adopted (supported by all political parties, except possibly by the extreme parties like AfD) the form based on the liberal values of the constitution. The distinguished German philosopher Jurgen Habermas calls this “constitutional patriotism”.

Among democratic states, one of the earliest cases of making pluralism and liberal constitutional values the basis of nationalism is that of the United States. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address starts with referring to the “nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. In 1973, Hannah Arendt, the German-born American political theorist, said in an interview with French television: “This country is united neither by heritage, nor by memory, nor by soil, nor by language, nor by origin from the same…and these citizens are united only by one thing—and that is a lot. That is, you become a citizen of the United States by simple consent to the Constitution.” In a 2009 speech, Barack Obama said, “One of the great strengths of the United States is…we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation, (but) a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values”, as enshrined in the constitution. Despite its many historical (and often racially motivated) lapses, this is a major example in history of what Habermas calls “constitutional patriotism” or some others call “civic nationalism”.

As we have said before, this kind of civic nationalism draws upon the homegrown syncretic values of Indian history’s Bhakti movements in different parts of the country. I think it is imperative on the part of the Opposition parties to give up their silence or acquiescence (for fear they’ll be branded unpatriotic) on the issue of the narrow intolerant nationalism of the ruling party and stop following some kind of soft Hindutva—that way they’ll actually be playing into the hands of the latter and earning the contempt and ridicule of minorities, liberals, and the large number of religious Hindus who believe in an inclusive, tolerant form of Hinduism. They need to openly embrace the alternative form of civic nationalism and inspire mass mobilisation against the systematic violation of our constitutional values by the ruling party. By their egregious trampling upon the rights of minorities and dissenters, by branding most protests against the government as seditious or “anti-national”, by abusing supposedly independent agencies and constitutional bodies, by enfeebling various necessary institutions of checks and balance in a democracy, by decimating the federal structure through over-centralisation of power in the PMO, by using Parliament as a rubber stamp, and by persecuting and intimidating people through the assorted vigilantes of the Sangh Parivar, it is arguable that the ruling party is seriously damaging the “basic structure of the Constitution” and thus the basis of our civic nationalism. This way, they are also degrading India’s national prestige abroad, as any number of international rankings show.

By joining the fight for an alternative nationalism with that for restoring democracy, the Opposition can invigorate itself; it must mobilise in identifying and focusing on the “termites” that are eating at the vitals of our republic for all to see.

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 11, 2021 under the title ‘How to reimagine nationalism’. The writer is professor of graduate school at the department of economics, University of California, Berkeley

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