Shashi Tharoor on the rise of mandatory hyper-nationalism

India became illiberal; in the name of authenticity, we risk losing decency

PTI05-08-2020_000162B PTI

The global rise of officially mandated nationalism is a surprising phenomenon of our times. The century began with globalisation seeming unstoppable, national boundaries appearing ever-more permeable and states surrendering more and more of their sovereignty to supra-national organisations like the European Union, to regional and global trade pacts refereed by the World Trade Organization and to international legal institutions like the International Criminal Court. Few could have foreseen such an abrupt reversal of this trend in the second decade of the century, spurred by a worldwide backlash against globalisation. An ugly byproduct of this is the rise of mandatory hyper-nationalism.

The backlash has taken on a nativist hue everywhere. In Europe and America, this has involved racist hostility to immigrants and minorities (whether ethnically or religiously defined). Since such negative messaging requires a positive counterpart, nationalism—from Trump’s “Make America Great Again” to Erdogan’s reviving Imperial Turkish glories—has filled the breach. A majoritarian narrative has sought to subsume each country’s diverse political tendencies into an artificial unity masquerading as patriotism. Globalisation had promised a world of dissolving differences and ever-expanding freedoms that would embrace everyone. Instead, today’s reactive nationalism heightens differences, emphasises singular virtues associated with a politically defined “people” and seeks to instil loyalty to the state.

At the level of emblems like the flag, the national anthem, the lapel pin and reverence for the military’s sacrifices, I have no problem with this. But when symbols are used to promote a sense of duty rather than affection for the idea of the nation, and compliance with the prevailing governmental narrative, then I have a problem.

Here “respect” for the anthem and the flag becomes a code for obedience to the state and the ruling party. Today, conformity has become the new badge of allegiance. The wave of rising right-wing populism that is engulfing Europe is illustrative of this trend. Support for anti-system populist parties in Europe, such as the National Front in France, Syriza in Greece and the Five-Star Movement in Italy are only the more extreme examples. The rise of such illiberal nationalisms is occurring when there seems to be the real risk of a power vacuum in Europe.

Today, as President Emmanuel Macron seeks re-election, France offers two principal alternatives to him, each more ultra-nationalist than the other: Marine LePen of the National Front outflanked by the acerbic provocateur Eric Zemmour. The recent performances of Austria’s far-right groups and Germany’s AfD suggest that the trend they exemplify is spreading. These are troubling and potentially dangerous developments. The idea of the nation as an inclusive community of all citizens, one that allows each individual to shelter under the constitutional carapace and to pursue his or her own ideas of happiness and national loyalty, free from the stipulations of rulers, is being tossed aside in the name of a higher patriotic duty to an officially sanctioned version of nationalism.

This is reminiscent of the same slippery slope down which Italy and Germany slid into fascism and Nazism in the 1920s and 1930s. Such fears may be exaggerated in today’s democracies, with modern means of communication and thriving free media. But, as a glance at the toxic vituperation spread on social media confirms, complacency is no longer an option.

India is a country that has gained greatly since 1991 from abandoning its post-colonial autarky and lowering protectionist barriers that restricted foreign investment and reduced trade. Along with this greater openness to the world had come a broader receptivity to prevailing international norms in everything from business culture to permissive sexual behaviour—and to subsuming patriotism within a broader liberal and cosmopolitan internationalism. That is now grinding to a halt under our current dispensation.

Our prime minister tosses constitutional norms aside and performs puja at Ayodhya; his party openly asserts defiant Hindutva and condones the marginalisation of minorities, especially Muslims. Young girls in traditional dress are prevented from pursuing their education by fanatics and political opportunists. India has become illiberal, and in the process, allegedly more truly Indian. In the name of authenticity, we risk losing our decency.