What Does it Really Mean to 'Unite' a Country Like India?

Could we imagine an India in which fiscal and political power is distributed amongst the peoples of India to ensure accessibility and accountability?

The Bharat Jodo Yatra was inspiring and confusing in equal measure. The message of uniting the peoples of India with love is inspirational. But I wonder what exactly it means to “unite” the country, and am confounded by the lack of any discussion on the subject.

We are familiar with the British policy of “divide and rule”. Using a combination of deceit and bribery, differences between communities were leveraged systematically to pit them against one another. The ensuing chaos ensured that resistance against colonists would not unify.

Naturally, the average informed voter is likely to view national unity as a good thing. But for a number of reasons, I wonder if this notion of “unity” is not yet another tool to divide and rule? It is quite easy to conflate unity with homogeneity, the unfortunate fallout of which is that differences are viewed as being anti-unity. Whilst refrains like “united we stand, divided we fall” and “unity in diversity” remain popular, communal hatred continues to fester in India.

Sir Cyril Radcliffe did not draw India’s partitioned maps with the help of a ruler (unlike in Africa). And yet, our communities appear to be divided by lines being drawn straight through our macro differences of communal belief, custom, diet, language and tradition, and through our micro differences of opinion within a family.

On the one hand, it could be argued that the two successive BJP governments have exacerbated the intolerance of differences to unprecedented levels. On the other, it has also been argued that the several successive Congress governments did little to demarginalise minorities. By letting the communal fissures persist, it has only enabled the BJP to now manipulate them.

Be that as it may, I understand that the Bharat Jodo Yatra was not intended to apportion blame, but rather to imbue the forward-looking vision of love, tolerance and unity amongst the many peoples that make India. Nonetheless, it is one thing to call for a “united” India, but quite another to articulate what “unity” means, and how this can be achieved. This is especially important because “unity” is not exclusively a Congress slogan, but that of every mainstream political party in India.

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It is clear to me that many holding strong opinions on what it means to be Indian do not quite understand her diversity. It would be surprising if they might recognise the average north-eastern citizen with mongoloid features as Indian at all, leave alone empathise with her problems with military excesses. It would also be surprising should they skip a heartbeat before branding people protesting the proposal to adopt Hindi as the lingua Indica as being anti-India. India as a nation state may have been an “improbable miracle”, but does this miracle bear any semblance of a nation state other than in its polity?

And if indeed the idea of India is united only in its polity, one reaches the irresistible conclusion that the idea of India as a nation state has been historically one of Empire building and it continues to be just that. At the heart of every empire lies the greed to centralise power in an ever-increasing hegemony over geographies and populations. Greater this hegemony, greater is the distance between those in power and those they represent. This, in turn, whittles down accountability, and in that the idea of Empire is rotten.

I live in the Netherlands, a country smaller than the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. It is not uncommon to find oneself cycling alongside Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, in the Hague. This level of accessibility of Dutch elected representatives at the municipal, provincial and national level ensures accountability. Despite little to no sense of nationalism, there is a greater sense of solidarity and egalitarianism amongst the Dutch. Both accountability of the representatives and the solidarity of the electorate are causal to each other, and are evident in some of the highest tax rates matched by some of the best (and increasingly sustainable) public goods and services in the world. This, I think, is a working model of unity of people and of polity.

One might be forgiven to wonder what may have been if India were never united as a country, but as a loose economic union like the European Union. The 30-odd nation states would have given us as many social, political, economic experiments to learn from as a community of nations. The vastly smaller geographies and populations under singular administrations may have kept the polity honest, accessible and accountable. The inevitable economic interdependence between such nation-states may have maintained harmony. One might not be able to rule out the politics of othering of minorities all together, but as I see it in Europe, that would likely be at a much smaller scale than what we see in India. Relations between national governments would remain rather business-like, leaving little room for the politics of hate at a subcontinental scale.

Of course, it would be naïve to suggest that one should partition India into 30-odd nation states in 2023. But could we imagine an India in which fiscal and political power is distributed amongst the peoples of India to ensure accessibility and accountability?

Also read: Why ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ Has Captured the Popular Imagination

This shouldn’t be a very far-fetched idea given that India is, after all, a federal “union of states”. Unfortunately, India’s constitutional set up is biased towards greater centralisation of power. It is only a corollary that federalism has been eroded every time a pre-eminent political figure has come to power in New Delhi. The period from 1952 to 1967 was a period of a pre-eminent party, but Nehru’s plebiscitary leadership ensured that regional Congress leaders enjoyed strong mass bases of their own – resulting in a sort of intra-party federalism. Indira Gandhi was the first pre-eminent political figure and dealt a major blow to federalisation through the proclamation of emergency and employment of Article 356 of the Constitution to dismiss non-Congress state governments. The period between 1989 and 2014 represented perhaps the heyday of Indian federalism so far. The coalition governments at the Centre ensured that regional interests were looked after by policy decisions taken in New Delhi. It was in this era that liberalisation marked the end of the centralised licence raj, and states could attract foreign investments of their own accord.

The year 2014, however, marked the return of a pre-eminent figure in national politics, which was only strengthened in 2019. And with it have come increasingly unitary laws, policies and political manoeuvres. Demonetisation, the Citizenship Amendment Act, the proclamation of the President’s rule in Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir, the dilution of Article 370 and conversion of a fully-fledged state into two union territories, orchestrating defections to capture power in states in which the dominant party could not form governments, are but a few examples. The introduction of the Goods and Services Tax has been hailed as an achievement of cooperative federalism. Alas, even there the Centre holds an effective veto over the states in the GST Council. Given that BJP-run state governments defer to Modi, the GST Council tends to become an ineffective model of federalism, as the veto is transformed into fiat.

Perhaps federalism should not be left to the mercy of electoral winds of the day, and it may be time to reconsider India’s quasi-federal constitutional set up in favour of something wherein the Centre-state relations are somewhat inverted. The Centre might be responsible for areas like defence, the protection of fundamental rights, and the harmonisation of national norms. Fiscal and most legislative powers might be devolved exclusively onto the states. “National unity” would be better served if it were interpreted, not as belligerent nationalism, but rather as solidarity. This could be fostered through ensuring free movement of individuals, goods, services and capital within India.

One can wax eloquent about unity in the abstract as observed in Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, or in the BJP’s Akhand Bharat or Sabka Sath Sabka Vikaas rhetoric. But unless it is translated into concrete policy proposals of how India can truly respect diversity whilst maintaining solidarity and ensuring accountability, the rhetoric is likely to remain hollow.

Dr Dhruv Janssen-Sanghavi is a Netherlands-based professor of International Tax Law and Policy. Views are entirely personal.