Missing the mark

The market for patriotism

By Ashok V. Desai
  • Published 17.04.18
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There is no correlation between countries and patriotism. Of the 60-odd countries I have visited, citizens of most - for instance, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Canada or Singapore - would hardly ever give a thought to patriotism. They are no less fond or proud of their country than we; but they would think it crazy to make a show of it. Indians do make a ritual of patriotism; one only has to think of the poor school kids who have to get up early on Independence Day, rush to some common field and sit for hours waiting for some politician to give them a supremely boring speech.

Can our fixation with patriotism be traced back to history? The British, who ruled us, were unpopular; to disobey and insult them was a way of making them feel unwelcome. "Jai Hind" and "Inquilab Zindabad" were the most popular slogans; processionists made up their own on the spot besides (incidentally, "Bharat Mata ki Jai" was never one of them). Once the British left, the slogans lost their role. Nehru continued after Independence his earlier habit of addressing crowds; he turned his speeches into lessons in national government and policy. But charismatic leaders died one by one; and once television spread, people preferred to listen to politics in the comfort of their homes rather than travel miles, squat in a dusty maidan and suppress natural instincts while a politician pontificated.

Indira Gandhi mastered the art of making enemies; that divided the nation and ended the association between patriotism and government in the public mind. During the famine years of the 1960s and the Emergency in the 1970s, those who suffered often took to the streets and made up slogans suited for their circumstances; but those misfortunes passed, and so did sloganeering. Nowadays, politicians do go about before elections and give speeches if their lieutenants can collect crowds; but by and large, open-air processions and meetings have ceased to play any significant role in politics. More effective ways of agitating have come up - for instance, dharna (confining a victim) and rasta roko (stopping traffic). They did not exist in British times because the police then would have punished such behaviour quickly and brutally; the police no longer do that because their political masters do not want to make enemies. Pakistan ceased to be a serious threat after the war of 1971. For almost half a century, patriotism has been asleep. People have been pursuing their personal and familial goals without giving much thought to the country.

How then are politicians to woo their electorate? The common way in democratic countries is for them to form government and use its resources to reward their supporters. This is endemic in India; and since India has three levels of government, there is much competition in buying votes. It is so intense that there is danger of excessive spending and budget deficits. It is controlled to some extent by the quinquennially appointed finance commissions. But no such institution can control the diversion of money to ineffectual or corrupt channels; and politicians' waste and misappropriation of public funds are a foolproof way of dissociating government and patriotism in the public mind.

But the government needs patriotism for two reasons. One is China. It has a vastly larger economy than India, larger armed forces, and a larger potential in competition or hostilities. The United Progressive Alliance government was resigned to this; but the National Democratic Alliance government wishes it could confront China. It risked a potential conflict in Doklam, but China did not bite the bait. It hosted and entertained heads of Southeast Asian countries on the last Republic Day, evidently in the hope of making them allies. The prime minister keeps embracing heads of foreign states to befriend them. But diplomacy is about interests, not friendships.

The other is its antipathy towards Pakistan. Pakistan's support of those who object to Indian rule in Kashmir riles the government. It has been engaged in skirmishes with Pakistan, and would like Indian people to feel patriotically hostile towards Pakistan. It has not got much explicit public response to these concerns, even in the states it rules.

The NDA cannot understand why such an obviously desirable, appealing campaign of xenophobia has not yielded results. It has been looking for the reason, and believes it has found one in the machinations of those it considers anti-national. Not surprisingly, it has mixed up secularism, the ideology of its opponent Congress, with anti-nationalism. If the Bharatiya Janata Party can convey the message and convince the electorate that the Congress is anti-national, it would gain votes. Hence it sees considerable advantage in confusing secularism and anti-nationalism. It has converted a good proportion of the media with this message; but it has been less successful with the people: at any rate, there is no strong evidence that they have been converted. In particular, the proportion of Muslims in the population is too low and the contact of the Hindu population with Muslims is not frequent or unfavourable enough for the conversion of Hindus into a vote bank for the BJP. The BJP has no doubt increased its market share in the patriotism market; but the connection between it and the electoral market is not close enough to give the BJP an edge.

That is on the political side. On the economic side, the BJP was under the impression that the people seriously disapproved of corruption, and staged an attack on it in the guise of demonetization. Its political hypothesis may be right or wrong; but its economic analysis was wrong: the proportion of 'black money' - cash balances built up by evading taxes - in personal wealth is extremely small. Most of such wealth is in real estate. They are not unconnected; the fall in the supply of currency led to a crash in property prices. But unless owners sold property, their losses on account of the crash are only paper losses. They hated the BJP for the losses, and greatly reduced fresh investment in property. But the BJP's attempt to hit them failed.

Thus, even if one agrees with the BJP's objectives, its political and economic analysis has been defective; that is why what it considers massive blows against traitors and crooks have not hit their mark. There is no serious independent analysis of these issues, so what actually happened is unclear. Despite absence of facts, the public may well go along with the BJP's conviction that its measures have been a great success, and vote for the BJP in the forthcoming elections.

There is nothing wrong with that: the people can elect any party they like, and their judgment is final. What is wrong is the reasoning that has gone into BJP's reforms. Its decision-making mechanisms are naïve; they will lead it to continue making major mistakes, at the country's cost. Not everything it does would be a mistake; it may also do the right thing by accident. But the lack of an analytical backbone has greatly increased the risks facing the country. Electorates generally punish their rulers' errors by voting them out of power. That may happen with the BJP, eventually. But until it happens, the country will bear the brunt.