Shashi Tharoor's New Book Is Broad and Brilliant, but Not Bold Enough

In 'The Battle of Belonging', the Congress leader lucidly describes the different forms of nationalism but does not provide a coherent strategy on countering the BJP.

Ever since he moved into Indian politics following a distinguished career at the United Nations, Shashi Tharoor has been an outlier. Whether speaking with his idiosyncratic eloquence in parliament, outraging social media followers across the political spectrum with his acerbic humour, sophisticatedly defending every embarrassment of the Indian National Congress (INC), vehemently chastising the British Empire, or producing a litany of compellingly unpronounceable words as part of his Tharoorosaurus, the diplomat-turned-politician has increasingly been in a league of his own. Exemplifying his eclectic talents further has been a series of rigorously researched and passionately persuasive books, the latest of which hit the shelves this November.

Shashi Tharoor
The Battle of Belonging
Aleph Book Company (October 2020)

The Battle of Belonging: On Nationalism, Patriotism and What it Means to be Indian is arguably Tharoor’s most ambitious work yet. Coming at a time when nationalism and its concomitant discourses have become a bone of contention around the world, not least in India, this is a book that showcases the power of Tharoor’s erudition, underlines the pedigree of his scholasticism, even affirms his perspicacity as a comprehensive commentator. And yet, in spite of its collective promise, The Battle of Belonging falls short of being a genuinely path-breaking tome, for it fails to provide a convincing riposte to the most pertinent issues it raises itself.

A tour d’horizon of nationalism

While the contents section of The Battle of Belonging is neatly compartmentalised into six phases, the book effectively comprises three major parts – a sustained delineation of the evolution of nationalism in theory and practice (including its developments in India), a diagnosis of the contemporary challenges in Indian nationalism, and Tharoor’s vision for a repurposing of nationalistic understanding that attempts to resolve the fundamental flaws with India’s present version of majoritarian nationalism.

Tharoor makes it amply clear in the first part of the book that nationality and nationhood is an “intensely political matter”, before creating a Tharoorpedia of sorts in collating the most relevant perspectives from the archives of nationalistic ontology. Tharoor ventriloquises intriguing insights that locate the definition of nationalism, distinguish it from patriotism (sometimes resulting in a fair amount of semantic hair-splitting), and trace its growth from an idea of unity and solidarity during the World Wars to a more parochial and polarising force exacerbated by the perils of neoliberalism and globalisation.

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Tharoor’s tour d’horizon of nationalism includes just about every major personality one can think of in this domain, from Kautilya, Thomas Hobbes, and Rabindranath Tagore to Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, and Yuval Noah Harari, among numerous others. This results in a literature review on nationalism that any robust dissertation thesis would be proud of. But it also means that moments of originality are few and far between, arising mostly through amusing anecdotes related to Tharoor’s illustrious friends in the international diplomatic circuit.

The most important contribution from Tharoor in this part is his personal taxonomy, which identifies nine different categories of nationalism, though his subsequent focus concerns only two.

Shashi Tharoor. Photo: PTI

Ethnic nationalism vs civic nationalism

“Whereas ethnic nationhood inheres in the body, civic nationalism appeals to the mind…Civic nationalism usually requires liberal democracy in order to evolve. Ethnic nationalism seems to require of its adherents that they should literally not think beyond their genes,” writes Tharoor.

It is clear which side of the clash between ethnic and civic nationalism Tharoor identifies with. As a patriot who rejected a British passport “for the privilege of remaining Indian”, Tharoor has no hesitation outlining how ethnic nationalism in the form of Hindutva championed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is eroding the civic nationalism that is rooted in constitutional liberalism and the values of India’s freedom struggle.

The second part of the book, a wide and sometimes repetitive account of the problems with the nationalism prevalent in India today, is where Tharoor seems to be at his rhetorical best, diligently addressing every single aspect of the nationalistic bandwagon. From the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva to the latter’s shape-shifting under the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), from the struggle between the northern and southern halves of India underscored by the primacy of Hindi to the role of social media in stretching the fault lines of Indian democracy, from the appropriation of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi by forces on the communal right to the cult of personality perfected by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Tharoor is relentless and remarkably readable in documenting everything that he believes is corrupting nationalistic identity in India.

And no, Tharoor does not entirely whitewash his own party either. He highlights how members of the Congress have “notably acquiesced in recent developments” to the narrative parroted by the BJP.

Tharoor, however, refuses to consider the larger culpability of the Congress over the decades in allowing Hindu fundamentalism to enter from the fringes into the mainstream of Indian politics. There is no engagement with the politics of appeasement on the part of the Rajiv Gandhi administration in the Shah Bano case and in the opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid, and nor is there any mention of the twin mistakes of egoism and naivete that paralysed the thinking of the Congress’s P.V. Narasimha Rao on that fateful day of December 6, 1992, as demonstrated impeccably in Vinay Sitapati’s Half Lion, a riveting biography of the former prime minister.

Rajiv Gandhi. Credit: PTI

Rajiv Gandhi. Photo: PTI

Solid and safe

In what is perhaps the most interesting portion of the third part of the book, Tharoor cites the words of eminent academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta, as issued to the former in a piece of private communication: “We need political, not metaphysical solutions.”

Having hit the nail on the head of nationalism through Mehta, Tharoor chooses to largely sidestep Mehta’s suggestion, by advocating an honest but hackneyed endorsement of democracy and constitutionalism for the India of the future.

Tharoor is undoubtedly justified in believing that “the battle [over Indian nationalism] is still being fought and it is impossible to predict exactly how it might be resolved”, but he nonetheless disappoints in not being bold enough to make a practical case for how the BJP juggernaut of Hindutva can be tackled.

There are the familiar diatribes and disavowals of an India where minorities do not feel safe, the characteristic reminders of India’s secular spirit, and the importance of “unity in diversity” through Tharoor’s trademark thali metaphor (seeing India as distinct from the US’s concept of the melting pot), but there emerges no articulation of a coherent strategy by which the Congress, or indeed any political player, can counteract the BJP’s brand of nationalism.

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The counter that Tharoor provides to Hindutva harks back to essential but esoteric abstractions that only a liberal cognoscenti can appreciate.

How does an auto-rickshaw driver who will vote for Modi simply because the prime minister has “taught Pakistan a lesson” possibly comprehend that he is espousing muscular nationalism and not authentic patriotism? How are parliamentarians like Subramanian Swamy, who believe that Indian Muslims are not a problem as long as they acknowledge their Hindu ancestry, to be dealt with on public forums? How is an educated, middle class, and otherwise secular Hindu to be prevented from viewing this August’s bhoomi pujan at Ayodhya as a personal, even civilisational, triumph?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi performs Bhoomi Pujan at ‘Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir’, in Ayodhya, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020.

How, in other words, is regular politics, encompassing both mundane and monumental events, to be set free from the vice-grip of the BJP’s carefully calibrated nationalistic messaging? These are all queries that go unanswered.

To be fair, Tharoor is not a student of Indian politics like Yogendra Yadav or a professional historian like Romila Thapar or Ramchandra Guha; he is a full-time politician with a voracious appetite for debate and discussion. To expect, therefore, that Tharoor can come up with an alternative paradigm of nationalism for India is unreasonable.

But what seems more plausible, especially given Tharoor’s intellectual bravado in the past, is the projection of a tentative blueprint that spells out an antidote to the BJP’s nationalism narrative in the political theatre, one that goes far beyond name dropping the pillars of the Preamble and considerably farther than the milquetoast reassurance that says “Hindu Congressmen have nothing to do with the Hindutva that you rightly abhor.”

Such a projection of an antidote, sadly, never arrives.

Ultimately, The Battle of Belonging is an exhaustive and immersive read that proves how Tharoor “takes his patriotic duty of being a nuisance very seriously”, but it does not launch from the excellent foundation it builds for itself to come up with something truly game-changing.

To borrow an analogy from the author’s favourite sport, Tharoor begins on the front foot, produces several punches and drives, and when faced with the googly of the BJP’s nationalism, appears to step out of his crease with a flamboyant flourish of the bat. But instead of hitting Hindutva for a six, he chooses to settle for a solid and safe forward defence.

Priyam Marik is a post-graduate student of journalism at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom.