If the proverbial anthropologist from Mars were to visit India this week, the visitor would have considerable difficulty in figuring out what all this fuss over a 20-year-old girl from Jalandhar was. The anthropologist would be at a total loss at understanding why over a billion Indians have been made to feel so insecure and vulnerable just because one young woman uploads an “anti-national” placard on social media. Why should India be manufacturing insecurity, anxiety and nervousness on this grand scale – that too, despite all the accoutrements of a robust republic?
Let us count our blessings. We are fortunate enough to have a Hard Man as our prime minister, who is a super-powerful orator, capable of mesmerising both the illiterate masses as well as the enlightened university professors and techie professionals; we have a robust economy, with the GDP galloping at above 7% (despite all the predictions of all those ignoramus economists from Harvard and Oxford); the ruling party has a definite majority in the Lok Sabha; it has just won local elections all over India; in the last six months, all the black money has been vacuumed out; the terrorists’ funding has been choked; we can fire 104 satellites in one go; we have test-fired a missile interceptor successfully; we have proved that we can – will – cross the line and surgically take out the terrorists and their tents. Despite all these trappings of a sturdy nation, sturdily led by a sturdy leader, why are we in India subjecting ourselves to a bizarre spectacle, staging tribal rites, having to prove to ourselves that we are not lacking in nationalist ardour?
Admittedly, like every other nation, we too have been constrained to periodically define, clarify and repaint the colours of nationalism. In the early years after Independence, our political leaders were not scared nor were we as a nation afraid of the foreigner. As legatees of Mahatma Gandhi’s moral authority and as rightful heirs to the legitimacy of the freedom struggle, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel forged a nationalist discourse that was anchored in the richness of our civilisational heritage. Three wars within a decade – 1962, 1965, 1971 – changed quite a bit of that.
To be sure, during the Cold War, our political classes had this habit of accusing its rivals of being under the influence of the other superpower – the left suspecting our leaders’ vulnerability to the Americans and the right accusing the government of dancing to the Kremlin’s tune. Domestic disputes and disagreements began getting framed so as to demean the rivals by painting them as the foreigner’s cat’s paw. But the masses remained wonderfully self-assured in their love for the country. Doubts again cropped up, post the 1991 liberalisation; by that time, though, our middle classes had acquired the competence, calibre and confidence to compete on the larger stage, holding their own, pitting their wits and learning against the very best in the global village. The last great nationalism battle was over the nuclear deal during UPA-I rule; both the left and the right thought that the Americans were too smart for us and that we would not be able to prevent them from taking us to the cleaners. But Indian nationalism was self-assured enough and that round got sorted out without convulsions or ugliness. In fact, Narendra Modi inherited and expanded on the national confidence note. He spent the better part of the first year of his term staging Madison Square Garden-type spectacles, basking in the applause and approval in foreign lands.
Then, the tide turned. The Modi juggernaut was brought to a halt by the combined forces of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar. The citizens were beginning to see through the confidence trick. Some new trick, a new strategy, a new distraction had to be devised. “JNU” happened. Master manipulators of mass perceptions worked overnight and overtime to conjure up the “nationalism” debate. A bit of violence, a bit of blood on the streets, a flag waved – all made a potent brew, so gullibly and cheerfully swigged down by the electronic media, to produce a new version of nationalism – demanding, declamatory and divisive.
So now, how dare a woman say she would not allow herself to feel intimidated? The ruling party and its street “cadres” feel offended: listen, lady, we have the monopoly – backed by the state’s coercive instruments – over intimidation, bullying, browbeating. We – and we alone – decide who is national and who is anti-national. And we will back our definitions and decisions by violence in the streets and on the campuses. Those who do not agree with our blue-book of saffron nationalism will be dealt with accordingly. We will decide who has a right to speak on this or that campus. The universities will have to be devalued and destroyed as sites and nurseries of dissent and disagreement.
There is a grand design to this tableau of intimidation. The ruling establishment managers know things have not quite worked out. Even after the surgical strikes, our soldiers are still getting killed in Kashmir; the terrorists are still at it; the stone-pelters still in business. Worse, we are being nudged by the international community to start a conversation – if not a dialogue-with the “Pakis”. China remains intractable. The neighbourhood chooses to remain unimpressed; and we do not know what the Donald Trump administration would do for us or to us. Will all those who cheered at the Madison Square Garden be deported?
If the global developments and arrangements do not provide any comfort, things back home too are not exactly cheerful. The assembly election results, for example in Punjab, will show that the youth have already weaned themselves off the Modi effect. Having ramped up unrealistic expectations of joyful achhe din and knowing full well that disappointments are in store for all those who gave a “historic mandate”, the masses have to be entertained and enthralled on a different taal. The uncertain and anxious Indians have to be reassured with a bit of a new codified doctrine, with a checklist of beliefs and practices, codes of conduct and social taboo. Thought-control is to be added to moral policing.
It is possible to argue that the struggle over Gurmehar Kaur’s relaxed nationalism is a political ploy, intended primarily to institutionalise the politics of intimidation, all geared up – cynically, calculatedly – to changing the rules of the game for the 2019 battle. The grand strategists take pride in their cleverness and in their ability to out-think the political adversary. They are good at planning ahead. If the Leader is to be re-elected, then new anxieties and fears have to be injected into our political blood-stream. The sacredness of nationalist urgings and sentiments has to be packaged as a menu of polluted vulnerabilities.