When Congress leader Kamal Nath was commerce minister, I remember visiting the ministry in July 2008 through a gate that had this written on its wall: “India, fastest growing, free-market democracy”. It was a bold postcard to the world. To me, it also seemed to be telling the world, ‘We are not China’.
From that to Hindu Rashtra today, we really have come a long way, baby. The only difference is, we haven’t painted it on the Bhawan walls yet or scribbled Hindu Rashtra in the postcards to the world. Right now, we are busy memorising this term every day for ourselves first.
When we speak to the world, we still prefer to be ‘Vishwa Guru in yoga pants’ rather than a Hindu Rashtra. Between these two tags, we situate ourselves awkwardly, Janus-faced and forever in anticipation or dread. It is in this space that the now-infamous ‘idea of India’ is mutating.
There can be and have been many postcard ideas for India. But what is more important — what we convince ourselves of through practised retelling over time, or what we project to the world?
Postcards to oneself
Every country has a grand, national schematic template, wrote Washington University scholar James Wertsch. It can take the form of an enduring, founding national myth, one that is internalised and repeated so many times that it acquires folklorish proportions. The template is also a tool that shapes collective memory-making of the country, and acts as a free pass to scuttle any counter-argument.
Early 19th century American expansionists had one called ‘manifest destiny’, modern Americans have the ‘land of the free’. Russians organise their history along the ‘triumph over alien forces’ template. China’s is one of ‘peaceful rise’.
India, too, has had several templates. The most enduring one is that it is a ‘non-violent’ nation, popularly understood as a residual legacy from the freedom movement and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. After Independence, we upgraded it to an India that never attacks another nation first. Other templates we rely on are ‘an ancient civilisation and modern nation-state’; ‘longest unbroken culture’ is another one. Then there is that ‘world’s largest democracy’ template – often a mindless worship of numbers. The emphasis is more on ‘largest’ and less on the health of ‘democracy’.
Through all these, though, there has been a wound that has encoded itself into our collective memory as well. This notion of ‘wounded civilisation’ is like the pizza base, it has been a constant. Toppings differ. This code taps into the belief that we were once great, then there was Greatness-Interrupted. And now, we are at the cusp of becoming great again.
This pizza base of ‘Greatness-Interrupted’ has played into every phase of nation-building. It projects itself out as hurt pride or righteous anger. It is the feeling of ‘we are owed something big’.
It percolated Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech about India awakening to its destiny. There is a phrase that many Indian leaders and government press releases have used in differing variations — India will one day reclaim its rightful place in the comity of nations. It conveys a stubborn conviction that India deserves greatness, something that was taken away.
Who took this greatness away? Who was keeping India from its destined greatness? There are many answers to this.
I would wager Gandhi would have blamed ‘modernity’ (just read Hind Swaraj). For him, our greatness was preserved purely in villages. Nehru would have blamed the British, for sure.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, and L.K. Advani before them, micro-target the Muslim invaders and rulers for taking away the greatness of Vedic and Gupta period. The great betrayal of Partition also plays into Greatness-Interrupted. The US’ unquestioning embrace of Pakistan, being kept out of UNSC, the Western sanctions after the 1974 nuclear test, the ‘foreign hand’ and the CIA.
There was always an enemy to explain why we are not great. It is not a new thing.
Emerged and forgotten
Then in the 1990s, the story changed. The world suddenly discovered India as a market. We began to celebrate ourselves as consumers, a decade after Rajiv Gandhi had told us to give up ‘vulgar, conspicuous consumption’ in his famous AICC speech in Bombay. We splashed the terms ‘conspicuous consumption’ and ‘middle class’ and ‘emerging economy’ on our calling card.
Emerging economy tag is what was given to us by global corporations, Western politicians, investment bankers and hedge fund analysts who scout for new economic frontiers to place their bets on. Goldman Sachs put us into BRICS.
There was something magical about the word emerging. It took us closer to ‘greatness’. We used it all the time. Getting the nuclear deal with former US President George Bush Jr was part of this new feeling. And then Barack Obama came visiting and told us India wasn’t just ‘emerging’, it had already ‘emerged’.
Undetected, what had really emerged from the consuming middle class explosion was Hindu fundamentalism and hyper-nationalism. This is a familiar trajectory across many societies in history.
Just as well, a decade after the heady days of emerging-ness, the emerging economy has evaporated from public conversations altogether.
Our grand, national narrative template is changing now.
We are once again licking the Greatness-Interrupted wound. And we blame both the ghosts of the past and the present — the middle ages when the Islamic invaders came and broke all our temples and taxed us into poverty. In fact, we rarely speak about the British colonial plunder of the ‘golden sparrow’ anymore.
Coupled with that is the internal enemy who wants to spotlight India’s problems. Arun Jaitley called them ‘perennial pessimists’ and ‘eternal naysayers’ and Bollywood’s Vivek Agnihotri calls them ‘urban naxals’.
The only way to Vedic-era greatness is through the new tag of Hindu Rashtra now. ‘Is India moving towards the Hindu Rashtra’, is an ominous, often-asked question. A senior RSS leader recently met editors off-the-record, and said we are already a Hindu Rashtra.
But not on our postcards. There is now a split between what we tell ourselves and what we write on our postcard to the world. It is like young Indians who smoke freely but won’t do it in front of their parents. It’s called ‘aankh ki sharam’. Modi’s CAA rules haven’t been framed yet. It may lapse by December if it’s not revived for Bihar and West Bengal assembly elections. In this delay, hesitation, there is hope. Perhaps this Hindu fundamentalist mutant is just a transitory animal.
Views are personal.
This article has been updated.