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How Shashi Tharoor examines the two nationalisms at odds in India today but fails to explain the popularity of a hard, unforgiving ethnocentrism

The in-between space, between the Constitution and Modi, seems sparsely populated in Tharoor's new book 'The Battle of Belonging'. In real life, in this space, lie political failures of the past that cast a bigger shadow on the present and haunt the future

Written by Vandita Mishra |
May 23, 2021 6:35:45 am
The Battle of Belonging, Shashi Tharoor, Modi-BJP combination, book, nationalism, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express newsBy the people, for the people: An anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protest at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi in December 2019. (Express Archive photo)

Author: Shashi Tharoor
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: 462
Price: Rs 799

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Towards the end of the book, Shashi Tharoor quotes Pratap Bhanu Mehta: “India’s pluralism is a fact, not a solution.” In other words, it should be the starting point for asking questions about nationalism in India today, the spectral paths it is taking, and not the clinching argument. The totalising nationalism of the Modi-BJP government is problematic precisely because it strikes sparks off India’s vast diversities. The search for an understanding of why that political project seems to be succeeding, therefore, must start from the reality of pluralism — we would not have gone very far if our exploration ended with slogans of pluralism, howsoever soaring or well-intentioned.

The Battle of Belonging is both soaring and well-intentioned. It lays out the face-off between two nationalisms in India today with erudition and moral clarity: “Civic nationalism” versus “ethno-nationalism”. According to Tharoor, the former believes that in a democracy you do not really need to agree all the time — except on the ground rules of how you will disagree. The latter disagrees with the ground rules, demands minority subordination and total identification with the Hindu rashtra. The former advocates the primacy of law, the latter turns a blind eye to mob rule, lynchings and vigilantism. The latter is led by a personality cult, which demands, as Umberto Eco says and Tharoor quotes in the book, that “citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People”.

Yet, though Tharoor is eloquent and weaves in anecdotes that speak of his enviable vantage point as diplomat, scholar and politician, a niggling discomfort remains. For the most part, Tharoor is making the case for a civic nationalism of a self-evident virtue, rather than helping us understand why it is being overtaken today. Tharoor, the politician, is also stopping short — he frames the impasse, takes a principled position, but doesn’t dip his toe very far in political waters.

“The singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural,” says Tharoor. He describes how our founding fathers and mothers constructed in the Constitution, a safe house for differences, where minority and majority were to be constantly redefined in politics’ fluid domain. Then why has a hard and unforgiving nationalism made such great strides in the country?

In a section of the book that is disappointingly perfunctory, Tharoor offers nine reasons for it — why “national ideals have been redefined and repurposed; unity has given way to uniformity; patriotism has been reborn as chauvinism; independent institutions are yielding to a dominant government; democracy is being reshaped into one-man rule”.

These are: The emergence of new elites bearing aspirations and values different from the old elites; a backlash against cultural globalisation; a revolt against the political-insider class, for which “Lutyens’ Delhi” has become a shorthand; the business community’s hunger for economic liberalisation; a global rise of religiosity; processes of modernisation and urbanisation that loosen local social orthodoxies and create space for a national Hindu community; Pakistan’s campaign of “inciting, financing and leading terrorism in India”; younger Indians impatient for change from an older politics of “messy coalitions”; and sweeping transformations brought about by technology, leading to social media becoming a ubiquitous and hospitable site for recycled bigotries and prejudices.

Tharoor’s list widens the search for an explanation of the dominance of Hindu nationalism — but only just. It is curiously inanimate and hurried, as if he wanted to tick those boxes and get it over with, before going back to what he really cares about — narrating an India “where it does not matter what religion you practise, what language you speak, what caste you were born into…” It’s a paean which, even though he denies it, sounds more like a dirge or an elegy.

The Battle of Belonging, Shashi Tharoor, Modi-BJP combination, book, nationalism, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news The Battle of Belonging: On Nationalism, Patriotism and What it Means to be Indian

In the best parts of the book, Tharoor fills life and colour in “the Constitution”, which almost becomes a living, breathing character, and rescues “the idea of India” and “unity in diversity” from sliding into cliché — by harking back to the constitutional moment, retrieving pieces of foundational debates on representation, rights of minorities, individual versus group.

The Modi-BJP combination is also a force in the book, mostly malign — it fabricates history and undermines the autonomy of institutions, brings in a discriminatory citizenship law, criminalises triple talaq and abrogates Article 370 as a way of targeting Muslims and tries to impose Hindi on the country’s south.

But it is the in-between space, between the Constitution and Modi — from where the pushback that Tharoor hopes for will come — that seems bare and sparsely populated in the book. In real life, in this space, lie political failures of the past that cast a bigger shadow on the present and haunt the future because they are so rarely acknowledged. In this space lies politics’ work not done by those who proclaimed themselves standard bearers of Tharoor’s “civic nationalism”. Here, lie the many abdications of his party, the Congress, its conspicuous cave-ins on liberal principles, its distortions and cowardices on secularism.

Outside the book, in real life, in this space, also, are “the people”, whose reasons to vote for Modi and the BJP may well spill over beyond Tharoor’s nine-point somethings. The people, it is possible, voted for Modi because they were manipulated by his propaganda and prodded by their hate for Pakistan and their Muslim neighbours. They voted for him because they were buffeted by social transitions larger than themselves, and because they were looking for the assurance of a strongman. But they also voted for more than that.

The people voted for Modi, perhaps, because he became what they wanted him to be. The risk taker, for those who had tired of the status quo. The leader with big ideas, for those who had seen politics shrink under the dead weight of faction and family. The communicator, for those who had marked the silences induced by the unnatural power-sharing arrangement at the top of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA. The outsider and the leveller, for those who felt excluded from enclaves of privilege and opportunity. The PM who took India to the world and carried the world back to it in a whirl of hugs and photo-ops, for those who had never been told a foreign-policy story because that was the exclusive preserve of experts and mandarins. Of course, underlying the many Modis, anchoring them, really, was the “Hindu hriday samrat”, who made it okay for communal prejudice and bigotry to be brought out of the closet and given a full airing.

Certainly, Modi also makes the people as much as he lets himself be made by them. He has worked towards re-making the citizen as the “labharthi”, the beneficiary of schemes that, in his name, deliver goods, like Ujjwala gas cylinders, in their homes.

Can the citizen-labharthi survive the pandemic, when Modi failed to provide the life-saving oxygen cylinder to so many homes? Can the Hindu nationalism project remain unchanged after COVID-19, or will the devastation show up the limits of its populism?

If nations are, as French historian Ernest Renan says, citizens with a shared sorrow, the post-COVID nation may be in the making. It will need a narrator, and who better than Tharoor. Perhaps, the stage is being set. For Tharoor to write his next book on nationalism, one that begins where this one ends.

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