Entering the Kurukshetra of Indian politics, Priyanka Gandhi began her election campaign from Gandhinagar, Gujarat, barely 25 kilometres from capital city Ahmedabad that witnessed the horror of 2002.
She chose a challenging place to start her campaign. Not only because it is prime minister Narendra Modi’s home turf, but also because a certain turn in India’s morbid, political history of communal polarisation took place not very far from where she stood before a large crowd and chose to remind India of the Gandhi who does not belong to her family.
It is no use being in politics if brave decisions aren’t taken. Both words – brave and decisions – need to be evaluated with caution before being exalted as values.
Bravery in politics has an emotional and ethical charge to it, when it is in opposition to power. It is said, fortune favours the brave because bravery favours risk. Political decisions, or decisions in politics, carry risks. But when these decisions lie within calculable strategies aimed at political success and power, they carry meaning only within the limited sphere of politics. These meanings broaden and acquire deeper dimensions when the risks involve values larger than the instrumental goalposts of politics.
In her speech, Priyanka has used a language that, besides what serves the Congress party, also serves a larger and fundamental concern: that of democracy.
Priyanka picked up a crucial word from Modi’s speech at his election rally in Ahmedabad on March 4: “fitrat”.
Speaking against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, Modi had said, “… Chun chun ke hisab lena mera fitrat hai (It is my nature to avenge every wrongdoing)”.
Deliberately picking on the word, Priyanka said, “Jo apni fitrat ki baat karte hain aapke saamne, aap unhe bataiye, ki iss desh ki fitrat kya hai? Iss desh ki fitrat hai ke zarre zarre mein sachhai dhund ke nikalegi, Iss desh ki fitrat hai, nafrat ki hawaon ko, prem aur karuna mein badlegi (Those who talk about their nature, tell them, what is the nature of this nation? The nature of this nation is to seek the truth in each particle. The nature of this nation is, to blow away the winds of hate with love and compassion.).”
This is a crafty, rhetorical manoeuvre in the art of political language. If the prime minister boasted it is in his nature to have a sense of precision for retributive justice, Priyanka brought up the question of the nature of the nation. But a nation is not natural. A nation is political.
If the prime minister’s assertion was to impress the crowd with masculine bravado being part of his nature, Priyanka’s raising the question to the nature of the nation shifted the question to whose nature is more important – the nature of the individual or the collective.
Her move undercut the prime minister foregrounding his own nature as being more consequential and above everything else. Priyanka successfully wrested the political question of nature from Modi, to show whose nature matters. She prioritised people over individual.
The idea of a nation’s “fitrat” (or, nature) combines two essentialist ideas: naturalism (seeped in knowable, scientific objectivity) and anthropomorphism (giving human characteristics to things that are non-human, inanimate objects). But the nation is a political (and territorial) machine, whose nature is as indeterminable as history. A nation is about people and their lives and they don’t necessarily follow the rules of science or humanism.
But Priyanka rescues the meaning of a nation’s “fitrat” by placing it not in any objective category, but in something ethical. To repeat her lines: “The nature of this nation is to seek the truth in each particle. The nature of this nation is, to blow away the winds of hate with love and compassion.”
This has a clearly Gandhian echo, where truth does not mean what you claim to possess, but what you seek. The nature of truth is to seek its own nature in the figure of the other, and in reality, in others.
The next line draws the idea of truth in ethical terms: Truth is in seeking love and compassion. In a place like Gujarat, where time refuses to forget 2002, love and compassion matter as much as justice. Restorative justice accounts for past crimes. But what helps people breathe and live with hope, is something more than restoration. A nation’s ethical “fitrat” is the possibility of love and compassion.
Priyanka’s talk of love and compassion struck a dissonant note in an atmosphere where hate is the order of the day, prescribed by rowdy television anchors, social media trolls and politicians. In a bizarre cocktail of territorial-rationality and herd-morality, all those who refuse to hate are being dubbed “antinational”. Priyanka evoked the language and sentiment of pathos.
Priyanka’s poised but striking speech had more in store. If enlarging the meaning of “fitrat” was her ethical move, her political move was made when she reminded the audience of the meaning of nation-love (in Hindi): “There is no greater nation-love than the rise of your consciousness. Your consciousness is your tool. Your vote is your tool. But this is such a tool, which doesn’t inflict a wound on anyone, doesn’t inflict sorrow, or damage to anyone.”
Nation-love, in Priyanka’s political vocabulary, means non-violent, democratic self-consciousness.
The meaning of democracy is rooted in two Greek words: “demos”, meaning people, and “kratos”, meaning strength. Nation, in contrast, originates from the Latin word, “natio”, or birth. Nation, like birth, is a matter of accident.
Democracy, unlike nation, is a matter of political consciousness. The concept of the nation is infantile in comparison to the concept of democracy. The wonderful thing about nation-love being defined through democratic consciousness is to overcome the petty, territorial constraints of nationalist consciousness into something more liberating.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India, published by Speaking Tiger Books (August 2018).