The failure of liberal idealists to grasp ground realities has made space for exclusivist forms of an attractive idea
Politics is a game of scale that calls for the creation of alliances, and alliances made up of diverse constituents need powerful narratives to hold them together. Whence the structural significance of nationalism, a narrative whose binding properties operate at terrifying scale to clear the field of competing narratives with less pull on hearts and minds. The rise of hard right populist nationalisms in various parts of the world, including India, sets the progressives of the world a tough challenge. What is their counter narrative?
Progressives tend to eschew nationalism in favour of liberalism or ideas further to the left, all of which have substantial internationalist credentials. Progressives both left and liberal take nationalism to be essentially exclusionary, a modern rendition of ancient tribal loyalties that we ought to shed if we are to enable respect for individuals and grant them space to flourish.
Arguably, the rise of right-wing nationalism has been aided by the dismissiveness with which progressives treat nationalism. The right has basically had the powerful nationalist narrative all to itself. This is not just political folly, but historical irony.
All nationalisms are not right-wing in orientation. Our own anti-imperial nationalism shared with most postcolonial nationalisms a progressive agenda for social change. Batting for the nation against the empire could and did mean a tactical and temporary suppression of internal hierarchies, such as those of caste and patriarchy, but the broad orientation was clearly progressive.
Nations come in two types: ethnic nations of the blood-and-soil type, and civic nations based on republican ideas of a social contract. The substantial overlap between the two in the birthplace of modern nationalism, 18th century Europe, means that we often forget the republican essence of modern nation states. This version of nationalism sees people come together not merely because of an often-invented shared history or culture, but because of a shared belief in the future. The people of civic nations share nothing except a belief in certain principles of how collective life ought to be organized.
This is why our Constitution is so much more than a set of rules. In an empire-nation, all we have in common is our principles set down in the common rulebook. The Constitution defines the nation and clearly makes us a civic rather than an ethnic nation.
All nations carry the conceit that they are special, but Indian nationalism is really sui generis. We do not have a standard nationalism because we do not have a standard nation: India is not France. "Unity in diversity" outlines a vision of nationalism that is entirely different from the 18th/19th century European model that ironically seems to be the inspiration for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). We chose to make a nation out of a sprawling continental empire, so we had to think out of the European box. The sheer novelty of that vision is something to celebrate.
There are good political reasons for progressives to worry. Invoking nationalism leaves them open to attack from the right. However, that political risk simply means being mindful of and guarding that flank, rather than abandoning nationalism altogether. A large part of what is driving the national protests against the new citizenship law is precisely this question. What kind of nationalism do we want to define India?
If a progressive nationalism doesn't show up, the right will win without a ball being bowled.
Nations are usually born in the violence of exclusion. However, the nation-state remains a brute political fact. For all our global integration, the state remains indispensable. As such, the rise of right-wing nationalism actually contains a kernel of truth—the dire need to rebalance a global system that has stretched integration too far.
Not only does globalization in its current form threaten local identities and fuel inequality, global supply chains emit massive amounts of carbon. A recent study published by America's National Academy of Sciences noted that "37% of global emissions are from fossil fuels traded internationally and an additional 6.4 billion tons CO2 or 23% of global emissions are embodied in traded goods." Far from the utopia of comparative advantage, global trade appears to be boiling the planet. The global economy needs to be scaled back to local and national geographies if we are to survive as a species.
Working people give voice to their concerns with inequality and diminished life chances in the only language on offer, that of exclusionary nationalism. The liberal sneer only hardens their resolve. Yet the desire to bring jobs back home runs with and not against the fundamental needs of the planet because it truncates carbon-spewing global supply chains. Economic nationalism is good for the planet, but the only flavour on offer is an exclusionary one.
It is a truism in social science that all people crave a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. If progressives don't forge inclusive ideas of belonging, the right will. The choice cannot be between the current version of globalization underwritten by a utopian liberal internationalism and a closed world of competing right-wing nationalisms. Even if we have serious and justified doubts about nationalism, tactically we have little choice but to fight for a progressive, inclusive form of nationalism that sponsors a sustainable scaling of our global economy.
Luckily for us in India, we have such a nationalism ready at hand. It is Tagore's nationalism, rooted yet open to the world, and it is currently on the march nationwide.
Anush Kapadia is faculty member at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in the humanities and social sciences department.