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Reckoning with a divided India

No Matter Who Wins The Assembly Elections, The Idea Of India Has Already Lost


Illustration: Binay Sinha

Does anyone still remember “the idea of India”? The phrase was popularised by the scholar, political scientist and historian, Sunil Khilnani, who wrote an influential book about it in 1997, but the concepts it embodied had been around for much longer.

The best single-para summary of the idea of India that I have come across appeared in an article by Shashi Tharoor. The idea of India, he said, was “the idea of an ever-ever-land emerging from an ancient civilization, united by a shared history, restrained by pluralist democracy. Indian democracy imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens. The whole point of Indian pluralism is you can be many things and one thing: you can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite and good Indian all at once.”

The notion that modern India is a nation built around an idea is central to most liberal views of India. The whole point of India is that you can be a Malayali or a Naga and still be as Indian as one another. Indian-ness is not defined by ethnicity, by religion, by language or even by a shared culture. (There are not that many cultural similarities between Nagas and Malayalis, for instance.) But as long as you subscribe to the idea of a pluralistic and diverse but still united nation, you are an Indian.

We take the Indian nation for granted nowadays so it is difficult for us to imagine how novel and how daring that idea must have seemed when independent India was founded. The other country that came out of old undivided India was Pakistan, which was defined by religion. And that soon broke up, leading to the creation of a third nation based largely on language and culture. (Bangladesh or land of the Bengalis.)

Salman Rushdie called the idea of India one of the great ideas of the 20th Century and the centrality of the Indian idea runs through the work of most great liberal intellectuals, people like Amartya Sen, for instance.

This idea of India was accepted in 1947 by most political parties except for sections of the Hindu right, which did not count for a great deal when India became independent. In later years, I think Atal Bihari Vajpayee accepted the idea but L K Advani wanted India to be an essentially Hindu country that welcomed Muslims. The current leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is so far to the right of Mr Advani that there is only the abyss beyond their position. So, they certainly have no respect for any pluralistic idea of India.

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That’s fair enough. If you venerate Guruji Golwalkar and Veer Savarkar, you probably have no time for any concept of nationhood that does not place Hindus at its centre. But what has worried me, as I have watched the Assembly election campaign unfold over the last few months, is that there is not one party of consequence in the whole country that is fighting the elections by re-affirming the idea of India. All politics today is about identity and freebies.

This will be obvious to anyone who reads analysis of the election or watches news TV. Nobody talks about ideas or policies any longer. All coverage of UP, for instance, is about religion or caste. Has the Ram Mandir proved to be an effective vote-getter? Are Muslims voting tactically to defeat the BJP? Will the election in Western UP be decided by Jats? Mayawati is not campaigning hard in this election, so who will the Dalits choose instead?

In fact, the single most repeated phrase in analysis of the UP election may well be “non-Yadav OBCs”. Where will they go? Will they back Akhilesh Yadav? Will they determine the fate of the Samajwadi Party?

Politicians love this sort of campaign. After Yogi Adityanath’s famous 80-20 breakdown (80 per cent of voters are Hindus; 20 per cent are Muslims), the BJP’s campaign in UP has been openly and nakedly communal, seeking to unite Hindus against Muslims. When other issues are mentioned, it is usually in the nature of freebies: Double rations and so on.

Punjab is no different though shockingly it is the Congress, a party that should venerate the idea of India, that is fighting the election on the basis of identity and freebies. Seeking to annex the space once occupied by the Akalis, the party has sidelined its Hindu leaders (Manish Tewari, Sunil Jakhar, Ashwini Kumar etc, all of whom have protested) and acted as though the only reason for choosing Charanjit Channi as chief minister is that he is a Dalit. (“Now we have got all the Dalit votes!” say Congress leaders gleefully.) As for freebies, Rahul Gandhi went so far as to declare that Amarinder Singh had been removed as chief minister because he refused to give free electricity.

The campaign reminds us that the old idea of India is dead. As Salman Rushdie wrote: “India is no longer the country of Midnight’s Children. India today, to someone of my mind, has entered an even darker phase than the Emergency years.... All of India belonged to all of us, or so I deeply believed. And still believe, even though the rise of a brutal sectarianism believes otherwise.”

Even Mr. Tharoor has acknowledged that he is worried by the rise of identity politics that works against a larger sense of Indian-ness.

The subtext to many of these observations is that the rise of this avatar of the BJP has fundamentally altered the character of the Indian nation. That’s fair enough. But it’s not as though the BJP is battling other political parties which are standing up for the idea this nation was founded on. It is not Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath (who never believed in the idea of a pluralistic India anyway) who have engineered this transformation on their own. It is all of India’s political parties that have abandoned ideology, that no longer seek votes on the basis of performance and that play the caste-religion-region game, forsaking the idea of India to fall back on identity politics.

No matter who wins the Assembly elections, the idea of India has already lost.