Modi’s idea of India-1

As his second Republic Day closes, it is clear PM’s concept of nationhood extends beyond constitutional parameters.

Written by Ashutosh Varshney | Published:January 27, 2016 12:02 am
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 67th Republic Day parade at Rajpath in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Source: PTI) Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 67th Republic Day parade at Rajpath in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Source: PTI)

What is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s idea of India? In what ways is it different from, or similar to, the idea of India inherent in India’s Constitution? We now have over a year and a half of record, both speeches and actions, to answer this highly significant question. I will present my interpretation in two columns. This column lays out the external dimensions of Modi’s idea of India. The next column will concentrate on the internal features.

No Indian prime minister in history has courted the Indian diaspora more ardently. Earlier prime ministers met India’s overseas community in small gatherings. Modi has held mammoth community rallies in New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Singapore, San Jose, etc. What view of the nation has been expounded in these events? The question has both conceptual and empirical significance.

Scholars of nationalism routinely divide the foundational principles of nationhood into two types — jus solis (territory- or soil-based) and jus sanguinis (blood-based). France and the US are viewed as the prototypes of the first, Germany and Japan have been prime examples of the second.

In principle, anyone born on the soil of the US and France, even if she has Asian or African parents, can be an American or French national or citizen. The application of this principle has not been entirely smooth. Jews were seen as “not French” by many in France’s history, and today, many North African Muslims, despite citizenship, also do not feel fully included in the French nation. But jus solis has never been abandoned. If you are born in France, you remain eligible for French citizenship regardless of your ethnicity. The problems of integration are analytically distinguishable from citizenship.

Like France, the US too, at certain points in history, practised departures from its jus solis principle, especially with respect to African Americans, the Chinese and the Japanese. But the basic jus solis principle was never given up. Irrespective of the ethnic origins of parents, children born in the US can be American citizens.

In contrast, by making blood ties a decisive criterion of nationhood, Germany and Japan have lived their national lives and histories differently. Anyone born of German or Japanese parents anywhere in the world can be a German or Japanese citizen. After the Soviet Union fell, many Russian-speaking ethnic Germans automatically became citizens of Germany, even though they did not speak German. In contrast, hundreds of thousands of Turks, born in Germany, stayed on as “guest workers” for decades without being granted citizenship (although since 2000 it has become easier to become citizens). Similarly, Alberto Fujimori, a former Peruvian president of Japanese descent, seamlessly fled to Japan as a Japanese citizen, when charges of corruption were brought against him in Peru.

Where does India fit? At the time of Independence, India stayed away from the principle of blood ties. When the Constituent Assembly debated whether Indians in South Africa, East Africa, Sri Lanka, Malaysia or the Caribbean could get Indian citizenship, the accepted view was that while they were free to maintain their links with their relatives in India, they were citizens of the countries where they had been living, not citizens of India. But India did not go all the way towards a soil-based conception either, in that those having non-Indian parentage, but born in India, were not made citizens. The Calcutta Chinese were the best example. Since Calcutta was the capital of Britain’s Asian empire, many Chinese came to Calcutta as early as the 19th century to work and make a living. Their India-born children and grandchildren could only become citizens through a difficult process of naturalisation, not by birth.

Why did India, after rejecting the German-Japanese model, not go fully towards the French-American model? One answer is strategic. If jus solis had been accepted, the many million migrants from India to Pakistan at the time of Partition, having been born on Indian soil, would have been eligible for both Indian and Pakistani citizenship. Clearly, this would have raised difficult practical issues. But there is also reason to believe that leaders of independent India could not fully trust the “foreigner”. Their stance was far removed from Mahatma Gandhi’s view. In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi had argued: “It is not necessary for us to have as our goal the expulsion of the English. If the English become Indianised, we can accommodate them.” If the British accepted Indian culture as their own, Gandhi was prepared to view them as Indians. Ethnicity was irrelevant.

With the rise of BJP-led governments (1998-2004), things began to change. A vigorous attempt was made to woo non-resident Indians. The logical culmination of this move was the idea of “overseas citizens of India”, promoted under the NDA but turned into law in 2005. “Overseas citizens” were not allowed full citizenship, but given all rights except voting and eligibility to run for public office.

It is also a blood-based idea of nationhood that led to Sushma Swaraj’s fiery opposition to the possibility of Sonia Gandhi as prime minister of India in 2004. Swaraj argued that Sonia Gandhi was an Italian, not an Indian, even though she had married an Indian and become an Indian citizen.

Modi has taken this idea much further — in concept, if not in law. He has brought Indian nationhood even closer to the jus sanguinis model. Overseas Indians are part of his idea of India. Of the many speeches

he has given, nothing suggests this more clearly than the closing remarks of his Wembley speech in London: “Mera apka nata khoon ke rang se juda hai, aapke passport ke rang se nahin. Jitne adhikar Narendra Modi ke hain, utne aapke bhi (Our relations are based on the colour of our blood, not on the colour of our passports. All the rights that Narendra Modi has, you also do).” This statement is not legally factual. Overseas citizens of India can’t still vote in Indian elections nor contest for public office. But it expresses a political desire.

Whether this move is right or wrong is a separate debate. My objective here is not to judge, but to interpret a significant part of Modi’s external project. By focusing on blood ties and by repeatedly addressing ethnic Indians, both in London and abroad, as deshvasiyon (those who live in India), not pravasi Bhaaratiyon (overseas Indians), Modi is extending the idea of nationhood beyond the constitutional parameters. His courting of overseas Indians as part of the Indian nation is both exceptional and unambiguous.


The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’ Part 2 will appear next week.

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  1. A
    Amardeep Assar
    Jan 26, 2016 at 7:18 pm
    Re: "Khoon ke rang se".... , mercifully my blood is green.
  2. J
    Jan 27, 2016 at 5:46 pm
    FYI, I carried a V-A card of the SSB during the Vietnam War. What those acronyms are. google the American way
    1. J
      Jan 27, 2016 at 4:01 pm
      I have been living in the US as a citizen of this great country since 1968 and watched the flow of Indians for nearly half a centaury. What started off as a trickle then has now become an inexorable deluge, especially with the Gujarats (the Patel,Shaahs and what have you )flooding the telephone directory pages among the "Indians", this term used to include Singaporeans as well as Ceylonese or Sri Lankans of Indian ethnicity. Early days the immigrants came to study, mostly science and engineering, and eventually joined the mainstream by settling down in America. However, the latter day immigrants came mostly for their IT jobs (sent by some Indian company) with very little, if any, education in US universities. Their only goal in life is MONEY and nothing more. They contributed , financially and technologically, mainly the rich Indian doctors and Gujarati businessmen in US, to Modi's success in becoming Indian Prime Minister, despite his dismal political history in his native state. Indians DO NOT want to serve the Armed Forces of USA . They would rather pack off go back to their dusty villages in India. On the other hand, Southeast Asians like the Filipinos and Chinese and Vietnamese willingness enlist in the US Defense Forces. This is first hand information that I got from my son who was a US Marine for five years. Modi will keep on visiting the NRI in USA and UK as along as they keep pumping cash into India.
      1. D
        Jan 27, 2016 at 4:49 am
        As Ashutosh Varshney pointed out Modi is surrepiously changing the basis of citizenship in India.NRIs - barring some of those who live in Gulf countries - are essentially upper caste elites who hold the power. Brahmins are over represented in this category. Even in late 90s, Jairam Ramesh used to talk about "Agraharams" in Silicon Valley. But so are Sikh jats, Kammas, Reddys of Andhra, Bengali Kayasths, Kannadiga gowdas etc. They capitalized upon their education and wealth bestowed by Indian middle cl status to move abroad and successfully transplant themselves in North America. The patriotism of these upper caste elites and their willingness to invest in India is over hyped. Their investments in India thus far show they invest only when Indian govt bonds yield better interest rates, and not when India needs FDI. So, the question is if they are stingy with money, why is Modi spending more time with them, than with foreign heads of state every time he goes on foreign trips? What Ashutosh Varshney runs away from stating explicitly is this. As someone who barely qualifies as an OBC, Modi in some ways is a makut for Hindutva politics. He helps sell the promise to backward cles that if they too can believe in his b of hindutva politics and join him in suppressing the easy targets like muslims, christians and dalits, they may have a better future. Whether in India or abroad, it is the upper cl and caste groupings that Modi and BJP wants to serve. Modi's politics is about legitimizing upper caste hegemony over the rest of the society in ways that are not directly obvious. Smriti Irani, and other BJP ministers and MPs may deny as much as they like, but Indian public knows by now that their calls to remain "apolitical" is a clever way to prevent others from openly discussing the ways in which BJP is operating against minorities and lower castes.
        1. D
          Jan 27, 2016 at 2:24 pm
          Support for BJP and hindu politics? or support for India? Data will show NRI investments or any other contributions to India have shown negligible increase during Modi's PMship. This despite Modi ji spending more time speechifying abroad than to a billion Indians. Data will also show Overseas Friends of India ( which is one of many such NRI organizations) benefited in getting more indians into its fold. Modi is permanently campaigning to his vote banks. Non-BJP politicians rushed to express solidarity because a dalit life was extinguished because BJP exercised its power wrongly and arrogantly on a bright university student who held a differing opinion. If you think Smriti Irani are not playing politics, you are in denial about the injustice done. Upper castes like you who fool themselves by indulging in Modi bhakti and ignoring reality are bringing disrepute to others like me. No dalit or right thinking Indian can condone or be blind to what BJP has done. Whether you like it or not, justice will be done eventually and BJP will pay dearly. In fact BJP can safely skip dalit, muslim and christian majority consuencies and visit your home directly. The only hardcore BJP supporters are upper caste, urban middle cl voters like you. Like in 2004, they will not be sufficient to save Modi in 2019.
          1. P
            Jan 27, 2016 at 9:18 am
            Introduction of this article is beautifully written. In between the write up , well read author has lost the purpose and direction. The view points and concern raised by author is naive and do not conform the reality. Modi is hard pitched on many battle fronts ,and invoking Indian diaspora in certain terms is only for a greater cause to the general mes and its future generations.
            1. R
              Jan 27, 2016 at 3:47 am
              What article is this? Is the author serious? Your interpretation of Modi is just wrong. So much of context and few details on Modi. Looks like the author went to educate himself and wrote excerpts out of a book!
            2. S
              Jan 27, 2016 at 3:52 am
              Apart from being rabidly anti Modi, albeit under the garb of being an academician, this scholar is writing irrelevant things. Modi is referring to NRIs and not PIOs, when he says mere deshvasiyon. It is as simple as this. Imagine Modi addressing his crowd in London or New York as mere pravasi bhartiyon! Perhaps, MMS would have liked this advice from this professor!
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