Nationalism is supposed to unify a country facing external aggression or an existential threat. The variety of nationalism espoused and practised by the BJP-RSS, on the contrary, divides us by identifying and vilifying multiple enemies within. The tactics of slapping charges of sedition against young activists evince this deep-seated insecurity and anxiety. Over-reacting to global influencers’ comments on the farmers’ agitation can be construed as “unifying” Indians against a foreign threat, but it can also be explained as the side-effect of the “Vishwaguru” syndrome that Hindu nationalism suffers from.
The BJP-RSS brand of nationalism is obsessively focused on world opinion because it is predicated on the belief that Hindu civilisation, dating back several thousand years, was the high seat of culture, spirituality, science, medicine, literature, indeed all knowledge from time immemorial barring a brief hiatus from the 12th century to the 20th century when it was subjugated by a spate of “foreign” invaders adhering to non-Hindu faiths. Naturally, then, where is the need to learn anything from the world and even more, have a tolerant ear to what the world has to say? India was the Vishwaguru in ancient times and is destined to ascend to that position in the near future. Nay, it has already.
But this central tenet, instead of generating confidence and self-reliance, becomes the cause of a collective anxiety when faced with the hard-hitting reality that India is in reality a few generations behind the western world in terms of material prosperity and advancement in science, technology and even the social sciences. This harsh reality leads to an obsessive concern with foreign certification of Indian greatness and conversely, complete intolerance of foreign criticism of Indian ills. Thus, periodically, WhatsApp university is clogged with fictitious forwards of UNICEF having declared Narendra Modi the best Prime Minister or UNESCO having awarded “Jana Gana Man” as the best anthem.
A mere tweet from a pop star was enough to put India’s external affairs ministry into overdrive. Multiple national celebrities had to be commanded to tweet that India stands united under this “foreign” attack when Rihanna had merely drawn attention to the internet ban on Delhi borders. Unable to come up with a convincing response or to ignore it, Amit Shah had to frame her tweet as a foreign intrusion in India’s domestic affairs. The tweets could very well have been ignored. But the obsessive concern with world opinion cannot be indifferent to the huge following these celebrities, especially Rihanna, has and the way they influence the masses.
Invoking nationalism to frame these tweets as foreign intrusions in the domestic affairs of the nation was thus not only inevitable but an imperative to preserve the imagined Vishwaguru-dom. The contradiction of objecting to foreign criticism, but rushing to endorse a foreign presidential candidate can also be explained by the syndrome. When a presidential candidate of a superpower whose citizens on average earn 33 times more than their Indian counterparts looked for endorsement from the PM of India, it must have been a compellingly flattering moment and read as the vindication of the “Vishwaguru” narrative. The possibility of Joe Biden defeating Donald Trump and the possible repercussions of this endorsement were of no consequence to our Prime Minister. His slogan “Agli baar Trump Sarkar” was the blind spot inherent in the brand “Vishwaguru Nationalism”.
The idea of Indian nationalism under Gandhi, Nehru and Patel, on the other hand, had resistance to and freedom from the colonial British rule at its core. At the same time, it freely accommodated and acknowledged the fact that India’s encounter with the British had also exposed Indians to enlightenment, to modern values of human dignity and liberty. Therefore, the compassionate and inclusive nationalism of the freedom movement had no aspirations to become Vishwaguru; it was inwardly focused on bettering India for all Indians, irrespective of faith.
The writer is a policy analyst with Pragati Abhiyan