Why did the Congress lose its grip over nationalism?
The idea of India is undergoing a shift in the last few years, and the grand old party does not know how to respond to the change
The surge of nationalism after the Pulwama terror attack that killed about 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans may not help the BJP repeat its 2014 electoral performance.
Yet, even critics of the party admit that the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is best suited to gain symbolic traction from the discourse of national security, even if it cannot be translated into a simple majority or even a substantial seat gain.
This leads to another question. How is it that the other national party, the Congress, cannot benefit from this sudden nationalist surge?
The Congress has been guarded ever since Pulwama in questioning the government on the intelligence failure leading to the terror strike.
It has also failed to take the government to task over the global media’s refusal to endorse the claim made by official sources regarding the damage inflicted to a reported Jaish-e-Mohammad training camp in the Balakot air strike.
The Congress fears being accused of questioning the armed forces, though the claims regarding the number of casualties in Balakot have come not from the defence forces but from BJP president Amit Shah and unnamed official sources.
The then Opposition had no such hesitation in questioning Jawaharlal Nehru after the Sino-Indian border war of 1962. In fact, Nehru is blamed even today with none interpreting it as a disparaging remark on the Indian army.
So, why is the Congress – the party of India’s freedom struggle and, thus, the lone party that ticks all the boxes when it comes to Indian nationalism – so cautious? For, even in post-independence India, the Congress is the only party that was in power when Pakistan was split into two in 1971 and more than 90,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered in what was an unprecedented military surrender at that time.
Yet, the BJP is confident that nationalism is its forte even after the recent flare-up with Pakistan saw a Wing Commander of the Indian Air Force being captured and then released by the neighbouring country.
The clue to understanding the Congress’ diffidence lies in a shift in the way nationalism has been interpreted in India in recent years.
A shift in nationalism as an idea
The discourse of nationalism has shifted to the right in recent times, with Hindu nationalism occupying pole position and secular nationalism – something that the Congress articulated since the heady days of the freedom struggle – acquiring a pejorative meaning.
The social media began to reflect -- as also effect -- this a few years back, with the word secular being deliberately misspelled as “sickular” to suggest that it was something bad.
The defining feature of Hindu nationalism – which styles itself as cultural nationalism – is the quest for the enemy within the country. It constructs internal enemies and tries to triumph over them, often demonizing them in the attempt.
The central difference between secular and Hindu nationalism is that while the former at least attempts to see all citizens as part of the nation, the latter sees Hindu symbolism as foundational to the nation. “Hindu history” travels from ancient glory to medieval “darkness” – brought about by Islamic invasions that established the medieval state that drew its legitimacy from Islam – to an attempt to use the strength of numbers to make India Hindu in modern times.
The forging of a Hindu nation in the present becomes an exercise in making minorities less relevant to the order of things. And it also entails subduing “liberal” Hindus and the left to ensure that there are no hurdles to the cultural nationalist project.
Thus, the enemy is not just the Pakistani or Chinese state here. The enemy also lies within. The battle has to be fought both inside and outside, even if opening too many fronts simultaneously weakens the battle being fought outside.
It is in this quest for enemies within that religious nationalism fails the ultimate test of nationalism: that of ensuring national unity in the face of external threat.
‘Bunch of Thoughts’, a text attributed to former RSS Sarsanghchalak MS Golwalkar, even had a section on “internal threats”: “Muslims”, “Christians” and “Communists”. As it has lost its electoral heft, the Congress is the new, invisible, entry to this list.
Since religious bonds – Hindutva ideologue VD Savarkar called only those Hindus whose holy land and father land were in India – are central to Hindu nationalism, the Nehru-Gandhi family, which has been multi-religious since the time Indira Gandhi married the Parsi political leader Feroze Gandhi, becomes an easy Other. That Congress leader Sonia Gandhi was born in Italy bolsters the project of internal exclusion further. In 2004, the BJP had made her “foreign origin” its prime electoral plank.
National sentiment redefined
Over the years, Hindu nationalism’s rise has changed the way many Indians see their country and their love for it. The victories over Pakistan in wars held till 1971 were not accompanied by disparaging remarks on the Opposition.
But now, Balakot must be talked about only by questioning the opposition’s love for its country. The rhetoric of those in power suggests that they are an oasis of nationalism in a vast political desert of high treason.
However, the present redefinition of nationalism as a war against “internal enemies” did not begin with Balakot.
This reimagining of nationalism was introduced in 2016, when a university in the heart of Delhi was targeted as the hub of anti-nationals. This was Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of the finest institutions in India that still officially ranks as India’s second best university and sixth best higher education institution, some of whose departments make it to the top 51-100 bracket of the global QS rankings.
And, ironically, this university does not train a workforce that serves global corporate houses. Its alumni include top officials running the Indian state and even its security establishment, including the present Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
So, why did JNU turn anti-national – and that too on the basis of suspect evidence, including doctored videos – at a time when India’s Foreign Secretary was a JNU alumnus?
The answer lay in its ideological slant: it was a stronghold of communists, one of the stated internal enemies. That the JNU left had been extremely critical of Hindu nationalism for decades – calling it communalism – lent urgency to the quest for enemies within.
No longer were anti-nationals to be found among handlers of terror recruits. Now, it seemed they lived in the heart of the national capital, in a top university providing the country an influential section of its top bureaucracy.
Many common citizens also bought the idea that nationalism was a hunt for “enemies” within. The very basis of nationalism as a creative bond of oneness among people of a nation-state was dismantled in no time.
The structural transformation that the social media brought to ways in which information – and rumour – flowed among people helped bolster the new definition of nationalism.
Rumours about India’s first Prime Minister and freedom fighter Jawaharlal Nehru became the order of the day. No evidence was required, as a whatsapp message made verifiable knowledge passé. The BJP IT cell excelled in this propaganda war, with its head Amit Malaviya openly spewing venom on Nehru – who had spent close to 10 years in jail fighting for independence – on the social media.
But Nehru was luckier than the Mahatma.
If Gandhi was assassinated by a fellow citizen soon after independence, Nehru’s character was assassinated decades after his death.
Hate messages also filled the social media in the last few years, travelling much faster than reasoned knowledge.
Indeed, in times when people get lynched on rumours of child abduction, social media falsehood trumps truth effortlessly.
The opposition is guarded because nationalism is no longer a familial bond. For many citizens, it is today akin to the discourse of the broken family in which scores are settled within.
And mainstream TV media is also gleefully discussing “friends of Pakistan” within the country. It may no longer be questioning the ruling party, but it is certainly giving the latter’s IT cell tough competition.
All these changes were becoming visible at a time when the Congress was battling criticism over corruption. It was also into the prolonged process of grooming Rahul Gandhi as the “rightful” leader of the party, giving political opponents who were more adept at political rhetoric a free run. And the Congress lost regional straps over the years, making the party decline in many states. From Jagan Mohan Reddy to Himanta Biswa Sarma, many left the party, much like leaders like Sharad Pawar had quit the party several years back.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – a man many admire for his intellectual abilities – was a man of few words. The field was open for not just an attack on the Congress but also on Indian nationalism as we once knew it.
Rahul Gandhi has become far more combative in recent times. But his extended learning period was one in which the idea of India was acquiring new meanings. The Congress as an umbrella party normatively reaching out to all has little nationalist traction in the “new India”. It can work as a welfarist party promising better terms for farmers and workers, but is no longer the prime nationalist party in times when Hindu nationalism has become a mainstream idea.
Till nationalism is redefined in inclusive ways, the BJP remains best placed to be seen as its prime vehicle.