The viral spread of India’s brand of nationalism began in right earnest after the BJP’s victory in the 2017 Assembly elections in UP, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Gujarat (besides their gains in Manipur and Goa), with Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan already under BJP rule, Populist rhetoric of politicians belonging to the Sangh Parivar resulted in atrocities, perpetrated by the cow vigilantes on the members of the minority community, and hostility towards the Dalits. In a plural society like India ~ with linguistic, cultural, religious and ethnic diversities ~ attempts at imposing a populist majoritarian view of nationalism are not only divisive but also inimical to the idea of a secular India. This is creating resentment among segments of the minority community who may nurture “anti-India” feelings and may become an easy prey to the rhetoric of radical Islamists. The leading lights of this brand of nationalism, include, not only high profile party functionaries, but also Chief Ministers (for example Yogi Adityanath) and Ministers of the Central Government. Giriraj Kishore, a BJP leader and union minister, allegedly said that the election commission should ban the green colour as it is often associated with Muslims.
The Prime Minister himself has been economical with the truth, when he claimed that it was his government that has the courage to authorise surgical strikes against the Pakistan based terrorists resulting in the destruction of the terrorist hubs in Balakot. The BJP president claimed that the Balakot surgical strike resulted in the death of 250 terrorists, while Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale claimed that JeM’s “terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and jihadis” had all been eliminated (Frontline, 29 March 2019). The BJP’s cheer leaders and other rumour-mongers had even raised the number of casualties to 300. Significantly, no such claim was made by the IAF, in reality, not a single terrorist was killed nor any damage done to any building or madrasa in Balakot, as stated by Reuters on the basis of its high-resolution satellite imagery. Probably, JeM’s camps had already been shifted or shut down. Pakistan later claimed that the IAF had dropped the bombs on pine trees in a “forest reserve” and lodged a complaint in the UN, accusing India of eco-terrorism.
The Prime Minister and his party tried to raise a war cry by invoking the armed forces and their heroics for electoral gains and questioned the patriotism of those who dared to ask for proof of what was being claimed by Mr Modi and his cohorts. All this was done to divert attention from the controversial Rafale deal and the government’s failure to fulfill most of the election promises made in 2014 because of demonetisation and GST. Nor are the Prime Minister’s claims of success in tackling cross-border terrorism and national security confirmed by ground realities as terror attacks in Jammu and Kashmir as well as ceasefire violations along the India Pakistan border/ LoC have gone up during the last five years, while the Pulwama attack (February 2019) or the attack on the Air Force base in Pathankot (1 January 2015) are glaring examples of intelligence failures.
A striking feature of this brand of jingoistic nationalism is intolerance of others, which does not even spare journalists. India’s position in the World Press Freedom index declined from 136 in 2017 to 138 in 2018, and in 2019, it declined further to the 140th position. In 2018, the RSF, which publishes the World Press Freedom index, noted that in India “hate speech targeting journalists is shared and amplified on social networks, often by troll armies in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pay”. Perhaps, this is too sweeping a statement, as even the regional parties are not free from the practice of targeting the press, whenever things go wrong for the ruling dispensation, as has been amply demonstrated on a number of occasions, particularly during the Panchayat/Municipal elections held in West Bengal over the last few years.
The BJP’s plan for using religion as a tool for garnering votes was started in 1990 by Advani’s Rathyatra. The sentiments that it aroused among the masses about the need for building a Ram Temple in Ayodhya culminated in the demolition of the Babari Masjid in December 1992. Surprisingly, the then Congress Prime Minister Narasimha Rao maintained a stoic silence till the demolition was complete, perhaps, he did not want to alienate the Hindus. Even the populist leaders of the “secular” political parties are not averse to using religion for garnering votes.
It has often been argued that the emergence of a populist Hindutvaoriented nationalism in India is the result of a policy of appeasement of the minority community (the Muslims) for garnering votes. Atal Behari Vajpayee once said: “We do feel that Hindus should not be discriminated against in this country simply because they are in a majority. If the minorities are pampered, if there is no common civil code of law just because orthodox Muslims are opposed to it, then it creates an impression in the Hindu mind that things are not moving in the right direction. (From Raj to Rajiv, p. 80). But he did recognise that hindus were becoming communal and warned that it should be a matter of concern for all political parties.
The pernicious consequences of defining nationalism in terms of religion, caste considerations or ethnic identities are not confined to the Hindi heartland , as is evident from the spate of attacks in Karnataka since 2015 ~ in Bengaluru, in particular ~ on the Africans, the citizens from India’s North-east, Muslims, Christians and on those who are opposed to such irrationalities, such as Kalburgi (August 2015) or Gauri Lankesh (September 2017). During this period, incidentally, Karnataka was under Congress rule. In neighbouring Kerala, where the BJP has never been in power, for the first time in the history of the state, conversion to Islam or Christianity has become suspect in the eyes of the law enforcement authorities as was the experience of a 24-year-old medical student Akhila aka Hadiya, who married a 27-yearold Muslim youth Shefian Jehan, after converting to Islam. Similarly, spurred by populist rhetoric activities of Shiv Shainiks, of the Maharashtra Navanirman Samity (MNS) activists in Maharashtra, are manifestations of the same malaise as the ethnic divide in Assam between the Assamese and the Bengalis, that have occasionally erupted in communal violence. If allowed to grow unchecked, such a distorted perception of nationalism is bound to destroy the fundamental tenets of India’s liberal democratic polity.
Unfortunately, populism is striking deep roots in Indian polity, and political leaders are thriving on populist rhetoric. Their policies are undermining the institutions, be it the Central bureaucracy, the CBI, the ED or the State police / administration, if not also the independence of the judiciary. They are dividing the people by making a distinction between those who support the ruling party and thus acquire political legitimacy, and those who oppose it. Intimidation and violence become tools for retaining power, preventing formation of communities at the grassroots that recognise political, cultural and religious pluralism. One of the worst consequences of populist rhetoric has been demonstrated in india during the Lok Sabha election campaigns this year, when certain leaders indulged in character assassination instead of a debate on the burning issues.
Tagore’s ideas may be relevant. Speaking on “Nationalism in India” he said,: “Even though from my childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of the Nation is almost better than reverence to God and humanity, I believe that I have outgrown that teaching. And it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches that a country is greater than humanity”.