Slogans and elections are inseparable companions. When the Lok Sabha election of 2014 was imminent, the BJP named Mr Narendra Modi as its candidate for Prime Minister, and the candidate almost immediately began to popularise the slogans that would eventually define the election: Achhe din aanewale hain; Kaala dhan wapasi; sabka saath, sabka vikas, and many others. Along with other things going the party’s way, the slogans catapulted the BJP to power.
Today, those slogans sound hollow. No one dares raise them for fear of becoming an object of derision. But with more state elections round the corner how can we do without new slogans?
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The new slogan is a resurrection of an old slogan: ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. It means ‘Victory to Mother India’. But it is a slogan, if raised every day, will leave most people wondering why it should be raised. It was appropriate when Indian troops recaptured Tiger Hill, but on other occasions it would be hardly relevant. Consider, for example, raising it at the end of an investors’ meeting or a lecture on judicial reforms or the launch of a book! The audience will be bemused.
Lest you make a mistake, I may caution you that the new champions of the slogan have a purpose in mind: they use the slogan to peddle the specious argument that those who raise the slogan — and only those — are patriots and those who do not are not patriots and are, therefore, anti-national.
That is a sure way to divide the people. Hoping to reap electoral gains, the BJP has consciously adopted the plank of nationalism.
We, the people of India, have formed a Union of States and given to ourselves a Constitution. It is perfectly legitimate to ask everyone to be loyal to the Union and to the Constitution. That is the duty of every citizen, but no government has the right to ask its citizens to do anything more.
‘Project Nationalism’ seeks to bludgeon the people to submerge their individual identities in a presumed national identity — that there is one history, one ethnicity, one race, one culture and one system of values that binds the people of India. It is this presumed national identity that emboldens self-appointed leaders to lay down rules on what one should eat or wear or read or view; or who one should love or marry; or who should be included or excluded or punished.
If we accept the BJP’s definition of nationalism, it will take only a few short steps to the conclusion that one religion is superior to others; that one language should be taught to all children; that one culture should permeate national life; or that one set of values should inform the lives of all the people.
State and nation
The BJP’s attempt to define a nationalist as one who will say ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ is a gross distortion of history. In his Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote that Bharat Mata was essentially the people of India and victory to her meant victory to the people of India. He led us to adopt an inclusive and democratic Constitution. The Constitution was a bold experiment in re-shaping a historically inegalitarian society into an inclusive and democratic State where every one could have a place of honour and dignity without sacrificing one’s individual identity.
State and Nation are not synonyms. The ‘State’ is a compact among the people that is sealed by a Constitution and the laws that are willingly enacted by the people. A nation is a historical concept shaped by the history, the struggles and the experience of a people. The United Kingdom is a State, but the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh will not refer to themselves as English. Belgium is another State where two nationalities co-exist. The communists have for a long time held a distinct view on nationalities.
Nationalism as a simple expression of love or respect for the nation poses no problem. If, befitting the occasion, such love or respect may be expressed by raising a slogan, there are many slogans that have adorned our history: Vande Mataram, Bharat Mata ki Jai, Inquilab Zindabad and Jai Hind .
To choose one over the others and make the raising of that slogan as the test of loyalty or patriotism is a pernicious attempt to manipulate or control the people. It deserves to be rejected.
A step short of fascism
Ultra-nationalism is divisive and not very different from fascism. Read this passage from The Doctrine of Fascism (attributed to Mussolini):
“Liberalism denied the State in the name of the individual; Fascism reasserts the right of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual… Fascism stands for liberty, and for the only liberty worth having, the liberty of the State and of the individual within the State.”
That is the anti-thesis of our idea of liberty enshrined in the Constitution. In a celebrated judgement upholding the right of children (who belonged to a religious denomination, Jehovah’s Witnesses) to stand up respectfully but not sing when the National Anthem was played, the Supreme Court noted:
“Our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practises tolerance; let us not dilute it.”
The question that each one of us must ask oneself is, ‘Do I value my liberty?’. I have the liberty to raise the slogan ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ depending upon the occasion, and I shall do so with pride. I also have the liberty not to do so. And I shall not allow any one, and certainly not the State, to define if I am a nationalist or not.
The article first appeared in print under the headline | Across the Aisle: Slogans, patriots and anti-nationals