Why has the Congress been unable, over the last eight years, to challenge the Bharatiya Janata Party on the turf of nationalism? After all, the Congress is the party that won India its freedom, shaped its national institutions, and essentially defined Indian nationalism for most of the country’s post-Independence journey.
It is not for want of trying. The Congress has led sharp attacks on the BJP on the issues of Chinese incursions and the Rafale deal. Recently, the party centred on nationalism in its protest over Agnipath, dubbing the military recruitment scheme as the ultimate “anti-national” act. Priyanka Gandhi implored the youth to distinguish between “real and fake nationalists”.
Yet, these charges don’t stick because in the nationalist stakes, the Congress stock has never been lower while the BJP virtually owns the house. Some commentators insist that the BJP’s nationalist reputation can be eroded if only the Congress were to more effectively articulate an alternative conception of nationalism in secular and pluralistic terms.
But the problem is not in the articulation but in the content. The evocation of secularism and pluralism does not poke the nationalistic fervour of Indians because these haven’t been essential elements of mainstream Indian nationalism post-Independence. By mainstream nationalism, we mean ‘Congress nationalism’ — the party which owned the nationalism space for the first five decades after Independence.
As an instrument of popular legitimacy and electoral mobilisation, Indian nationalism has had only two faces. The first is ‘unitary nationalism’ and the second ‘developmental nationalism’. In order to understand this point, let’s briefly analyse the trajectory of mainstream Indian nationalism (or ‘Congress nationalism’) over the course of the 20th century.
First, there was the ‘exceptional nationalism’ of the anti-colonial struggle. The Congress pragmatically articulated the Indian nation to be an amalgamation of diverse identities, all of them united in opposition to the British. Since the Congress contained the elites of all these diverse groups, it could claim to be the representative of all of India and lead the national struggle for Independence. Meanwhile, the Gandhian anchoring of the Congress’s organisation to PCCs (state Congress units) powered much of the anti-British popular mobilisation.
After Independence though, the Congress faced a new set of imperatives as it moved away from this ‘exceptional nationalism’ to a more conventional ‘unitary nationalism’. One, the top leadership in the Congress shared a preference for a strong Centre to keep the fledgling Union together. Two, the Congress perhaps anticipated that linguistic parties (apart from the Left) potentially represented its only serious political challenger. In 1948, a Congress Committee comprising of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramayya rejected the principle of linguistic states, backtracking on its earlier promises. “Language was not only a binding force but also a separating one,” said the Committee. “The primary consideration must be the security, unity and economic prosperity of India and every separatist and disruptive tendency should be rigorously discouraged.”
Even as the Congress was subsequently forced to accede to the demand for linguistic states because of insistent pressure from below, its electoral mobilisation continued to rest on the claim that it alone represented the ‘national interest’ — a value put on a higher pedestal over regional or sectional interests represented by the other parties. A related characteristic of mainstream Indian nationalism has been that it has always ranged itself in opposition to the forces of democratisation in contrast to European nationalism, which was allied to the forces of democratisation. Thus, every phase of India’s deepening democracy — whether the upsurge of linguistic or caste-based parties — has expressed itself as an assault on the Congress’s feudal oligarchy that has, in turn, defended itself using the language of nationalism.
However, under Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress did not overly emphasise the cultural aspects of this ‘unitary nationalism’, even as it contained strong right-leaning factions within the party, especially in the Hindi belt. Partly to keep these factions in check, the Nehruvian Congress also nurtured a new constituency under the rubric of ‘developmental nationalism’. This nationalism consisted of projecting the party as a vanguard leading the nation-state through a project of ‘collective development’ with the participation of the people whose role was to support the national leadership. Dams and steel plants, in Nehru’s words, were the temples of modern India. National pride was summoned through this imagery of a new-born nation galloping from poverty and backwardness towards a developed future.
By the period of the Emergency, this ‘developmental nationalism’ plank of the Congress had become seriously frayed. In northern India, peasant caste leaders such as Charan Singh had popularised the idea that the Congress’s model of development did not work for the real ‘Bharat’ that lived in the villages. Poverty and material backwardness remained entrenched despite nationalisation of industries and ‘garibi hatao’ campaigns. Therefore, in her final term, Indira Gandhi tacked Congress’s nationalism towards a hard, unitary posture. The threats of secession in Kashmir and Punjab were played up to burnish Mrs Gandhi’s ‘Hindu saviour’ credentials and generate nationalist mobilisations at the polls. “Indian nationalism — excluding the alienated minorities — characterised by monolithic and populist tendencies is the most outstanding legacy of the era of Indira Gandhi,” the political commentator, Balraj Puri, had written at the time.
Over the last three decades, the BJP has slowly displaced the Congress from these two politically operative faces of mainstream Indian nationalism. Firstly, the coalition-era pushed the Congress away from an uncompromising articulation of the ‘national interest’ as it began to negotiate and bargain with an array of regional allies. Although the same coalitional pressures also applied to the BJP, the saffron party (and the larger sangh parivar) only redoubled its chauvinistic rhetoric. The BJP has largely succeeded in bridging the not-so-large gap between ‘unitary nationalism’ (with a pronounced majoritarian bent) and ethnic nationalism. When asked about India’s biggest threats in a 2015 Pew survey, 86% respondents included Pakistan, 82% included Naxalites, and 74% included the Lashkar-e-Toiba. Thus, through the successful securitisation of the anti-Muslim discourse, the BJP has transcended the space of a mere communal party and now owns the space of ‘unitary nationalism’.
Secondly, post-liberalisation, Congress governments drifted away from State-led grand national projects that had traditionally fuelled its developmental-nationalism reputation. During the UPA years, the middle class was presented a vision of private consumption-led GDP growth while the poor were wooed through a rights-based welfare paradigm. Absent was a political articulation of a development vision that evoked a shared nationalistic sentiment. The middle classes, the traditional disseminators of this nationalist narrative, were further put off by a string of corruption scandals. Contrast this with the Narendra Modi government’s nationalistic packaging of its welfare schemes (Swachh Bharat and Digital India) as well as its economic policies (Make in India and the GST regime). The vocabulary of rights and entitlements has been replaced with the grandeur of national projects, with people portrayed as active participants in constructing the new nation. Having said that, the BJP regime’s poor record on the economic front makes its ownership of this nationalism domain relatively weak and vulnerable to challenge. The ‘five-trillion-dollar economy’ theme is now more likely to induce eye-rolls rather than patriotic goosebumps.
Thus, the Congress’s inability to take on the BJP on the turf of nationalism stems from the effects of its own legacy. Sure, the Congress has used secular nationalism as an effective instrument of elite politics — for building coalitions, for example. But in the arena of mass politics, it has never developed a potent vocabulary of secular nationalism as a counter-point to Hindu nationalism. When Nehru had to hem in the right-wing of his party, he used ‘developmental nationalism’; when Indira Gandhi had to subdue an ascendant Jana Sangh, she used a diluted form of majoritarian nationalism.
Similarly, Rahul Gandhi’s invocation of “India as a Union of states” lacks credibility as it goes against the ‘unitary nationalism’ long espoused by his own party. Further, it’s a notion repellent to the nationalistic common-sense in the Hindi belt, which is why few Congress leaders from that region would be ever found repeating it. Again, this paradigm of pluralistic nationalism might help the Congress stitch up alliances but it only serves to further concede the nationalistic turf to the BJP.
The BJP’s ownership of the nationalist space is not set in stone, any more than it was for the Congress in its heyday. But any worthwhile line of attack needs to bear in mind the patterns of the evolution of mainstream Indian nationalism rather than espouse thoughtless incantations of the ‘exceptional nationalism’ of the freedom struggle.
Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist based in Delhi