Post-nationalism and the notion of ‘ordinary’ person: How India shifted from a people-driven republic to a State-driven one

In recent times, the binary between what we are and what we do has largely collapsed. This, in turn, is due to the fact that rather than a people-driven republic, we are a state-driven one: our sense of what we are has very significantly been provided by the political leadership in power.

Sanjay Srivastava January 07, 2020 09:25:21 IST
Post-nationalism and the notion of ‘ordinary’ person: How India shifted from a people-driven republic to a State-driven one
  • In recent times, the binary between what we are and what we do has largely collapsed.

  • This is due to the fact that rather than a people-driven republic, we are a state-driven one: our sense of what we are has very significantly been provided by the political leadership in power.

  • What we are witnessing is not a fundamental change in either the nature of the national character or civilisation values. It’s just a change in the manner of telling the story of our national life.

Editor's note: As India heads into the 2020s, there’s reason to believe we are heading into a new age of anxiety. Economic growth has been crippled; many economists argue recovery will take years of painful reform. Ethnic and religious tensions have sharpened. Even India’s core Constitutional values and institutions, many commentators have argued, are besieged.

In this series, Firstpost examines what the 2020s will mean for India: for everything from politics and the economy, to our culture and communities.

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The apparent death of visionary politics – where civilisational dreams of change and justice have been obliterated by the scythe of self-interest and inertia – lies at the heart of liberal despair. The cupboard is bare of all the imagined allies: Dalits are no more against caste than the upper castes; the Buddhists have no particular sympathy for Muslims; and the working classes care much more about consumerism than the relations of production or those of a secular polity. However, have we really, over just six years, become a completely different people, swapping a world of far-reaching constitutional morality for the pulp-fiction of petty intent masquerading as national interest? Most likely not. The fault might be the manner in which we have imagined India: as a textual democracy, rather than a performative one.

Performative national life – where everyday acts of the people are statist and authoritarian rather than nationalist and egalitarian – hardly receives any interest from social analysts. Perhaps it doesn’t live up to our expectations of an imaginary national life. This latter, after all, is the stuff from where our movies draw inspiration, literary themes seek stimulation and familial morality is derived. It is always so much with us that, notwithstanding what we do, it shapes our sense of what we are.

Postnationalism and the notion of ordinary person How India shifted from a peopledriven republic to a Statedriven one

Representational image. Reuters/Adnan Abidi

In recent times, however, the binary between what we are and what we do has largely collapsed. This, in turn, is due to the fact that rather than a people-driven republic, we are a state-driven one: our sense of what we are has very significantly been provided by the political leadership in power. What we are witnessing is not a fundamental change in either the nature of the national character or civilisation values. It’s just a change in the manner of telling the story of our national life.

Let’s begin with nationalism itself. This mighty idea that earlier overthrew colonial empires and produced notions of justice for the majority is now – ironically – at the heart of a new, inward-looking politics of belonging and home. How has it happened that in an age of vast transnational movement of concepts and people, territorial nationalism – that which ties identities to soil and produces ideas of foreigners and enemies of the nation – has found such remarkable hold? The trick has been to produce a nationalism which is about a heightened sense of territory but also positioned within a sense of global cosmopolitanism. We might call this ‘post-nationalism’.

Post-nationalism is not the end of nationalism. Rather it is the re-packaging of the national emotion within a consumer culture that has no precedence. Perhaps the easiest way of thinking about this is through the appeal of Narendra Modi. The figure of Modi offers a nationalism that is about control over home (territory) simultaneously as it offers the opportunity of engaging with the world through hyper-consumerism. We are hence both intensely local as well as global. It is the perfect storm and we love it. What better than being able to be at home in the world? Is it not a fine thing to be able to identify enemies of the nation at the same time as we preen as participants in performances of global life? We have moved some distance from the nationalism that characterised the anti-colonial variety.

The second change in the manner in which we narrate the idea of the Republic consists of the redefinition of the idea of the ‘ordinary’ person. In the new performances of national life, the ordinary person is no longer – as was the case earlier – the socially and economically marginalised citizen. The ‘common man’ is now the Hindu middle-class person. It is this person that is the object of political address: the common citizen has been historically discriminated through ‘appeasement’ of the poor and the minorities and now is the time for righting historical wrongs. This means that the state must formulate policies so that the common citizen is no longer disadvantaged and discriminated. The Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens, the building of a temple in Ayodhya and the abrogation of Articles 370 are invoked in the name of this new common citizen.

The new fiction of the people is not an act of magic. Rather, it is a deliberate counterpoint to another version, that which has populated a great deal of the textual understanding of the Indian character. In this version, Indians are essentially tolerant, liberal, questioning and able to accommodate multiple modes of being in their midst. In this version also, a contemporary desire for a particular kind of community is projected into the distant past; as far as is possible to in turn provide a lineage for the present. Politicians, however, have a better understanding of the people who elect them to office as compared to historians and others who produce an image of the people in their own image. The careers of politicians depend upon knowing their voters’ minds. To be wrong is to be jobless. Our politicians – and those whose task it is to utilise identity politics to secure political power – have known very well that under the flesh of the imagined India lay one that had other ideas about itself. Our ideological positions have not changed. It’s only the manner of mining them that has.

As long as the state was the kind of ruling apparatus that – at least in principle – frowned upon violence as a form of community interaction, we were a Gandhian-kind of people. When the nature of the state changed – to one that either encouraged such violence or struck tacit arrangements with lynch-mobs – we became something which has never seriously been addressed as part of quotidian Indian life: a violent people. This did not happen in a span of five years, however. Indeed, given the long and intensive history of Gandhianism as serious scholarship and fashion, we should have been ingesting the principles of ahimsa with mother’s milk. Rather, neither state-led Gandhigiri nor the voluminous writings on the Mahatma have actually addressed the relationship between Gandhian ideas and everyday lives and thinking. There is very little. However, the discovery that we might be Gandhians manqué continues to shock us.

By making the actually existing present a footnote to an imagined one, not tackling the issue of how people engage with ideas and assuming an easy fit between ideas and practice we produce caricatures of identity. We continue to neglect the important question regarding ‘what is to be done?’ in favour of the spurious belief that ‘our underlying nature is admirable and present behaviour is an aberration’. The frequent assertion that ‘Hindutva’ can be tackled if only we returned to ‘authentic’ Hinduism is a good shorthand for this position; our core is fine and cleansing of surface accretions will do the job. This, as Ambedkar recognised, is part of the problem and not the solution. It is not that progressive visions of the future have died among us. Rather we have been returned to our un-reconstructed core.

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