We need more Democracy, not more Nationalism


Dr Rao VBJ Chelikani 

It is too late to start cultivating ‘political nationalism’ in India now, which never existed in the past. The concept of nationalism has already been tried elsewhere in Europe with catastrophic consequences, and discarded after much bloodshed. In history, for that matter, no pure nation ever existed, and all political states are a concoction of varied people who moved in and settled at different dates. All human beings have always been settlers, ever since they started coming out of the forests in search of plain lands and riversides. 


European Experience:

The idea of nationalism is not wrong by itself. It is a search for giving oneself a particular and different identity among many others with their own identities. So in the beginning, historically, in countries like Italy and Germany, the concept served to unify different people for a common identity. Charged with myths and provoked emotions, many dictators emerged out of this nationalism and used their people only as cannon fodder to fight for the glory of their tribe, race, land, language or leader. It is converted into a political strategy when a state absorbs this national identity, and thereby the concept loses its humanist values. Nationalism, in the first fifty years of the Nineteenth century, promoted hatred for other races, religions and cultures and enmity with other national entities and made peaceful co-existence difficult among most of the states. It provoked new identities among minorities and made them sub-nationalities. 

After the World Wars and during the reconstruction of Europe, regions in each state started asserting themselves, and many European states were re-structured as a federation of regions. When they formed the Council of Europe and the Common Market and later emerged as the European Union, most states surrendered their pretensions of absolute sovereign state attributes and started obeying the rules and regulations formed by a strong pan-European bureaucratic European Commission. This has been the logical social evolution in the developed countries. Soon, the European Union is going to operate like a union of regions rather than states.

The concept of nation-state as promoted in Western Europe has not been satisfactorily applicable, at all, to most of the states in Africa and Latin America, as it tries to prevent all social transformations, suppresses all diversities within and sees all outsiders as potential rivals for domination. In the vast majority of developing countries, the state and its operators became all-powerful constantly imposing themselves upon the citizens, internally and externally. Nationalism conceived as an expanded version of 'tribalism' is preventing Africa from rapid and continued growth; the energies of the states and their resources are not, ultimately, directed to the development of its residents.

But, now in the 21st century, instead of drawing ourselves into a smaller circle to live in, we have to draw a wider circle, covering the whole globe. In such a context, trying to promote nationalism now in India in this twenty first century would take our country one hundred years back, and put us in a situation that provoked two world wars. India has always been a cultural nation and never been a single political entity even during the British rule. The British rulers were content with Paramountcy and did not command absolute Sovereignty.  


When is the ‘Chindia’ Duet?

    The present political India is not a nation in the sense that China is. China has been an ancient empire from times immemorial. It has been dominated by a series of powerful dynasties, a race, a language and now by a single political party. Now, it wants to become ‘One China’ by claiming all territories that were historically and incidentally in contact with it. In India, on the other hand, the former rulers were more preoccupied with the spread of cultural, philosophical, religious and spiritual messages than with consistent political ambition to conquer others’ lands. We also, now we cannot claim ‘Akhand Bharat’ denying all historical happenings. Further, in India, our people have never been as homogenous as the Chinese. Though Mr. Jawahar Lal Nehru and Mr. Krishna Menon were very eager to be friends, China turned out to be a menace, obliging India to utilise a good part of its meager resources on shopping for weapons from outside to defend itself. Since then, all these years, the diplomats of both sides have all the patience and leisure to talk about how to talk, never coming to the substance of the dispute. So long as the Communist Party of China controls the state, we cannot probably expect any different behaviour on its part. If we are keen to get out of this bleeding dispute, we must make China accept arbitration or judgement by the International Court of Justice.

    Further, while India had only a brief spell of nationwide mobilisation of people for independence and then settled back to normalcy after independence, China, on the other hand, had been mobilised and underwent several traumatic social transformations and national campaigns in the name of several radical and violent revolutions. Later, the Chinese focused on some grand national projects and worked for them hard and with discipline. Thus, as a nation, China has been more mobilized and tumultuous than India. At the same time, Deng Xiaoping's reforms did not alter the tight grip of the central government on any of their autonomous regions and later, he launched ‘Four Modernisations’ that made China a world power. In the first two decades of our century, as estimated by a knowledgeable bureaucrat like M.K. Narayan, China had achieved an over 800% increase in overall trade volume, an unimaginable increase in GDP, and had lifted nearly 800 million Chinese people out of poverty. 

      In the case of erstwhile USSR i.e. the Soviet Union in 1986-87, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev had to admit the need for launching ‘glasnost’ meaning transparency in policy reforms for restructuring (‘perestroika’) of the political and economic systems. He recognized that there were threats from several ethnic regions primarily from the Russian Federation and in general, by the "parade of sovereignties." Finally, the Russian Federation alone emerged as a power and it is aiming to become a ‘Grand Russia’. For ‘strategic reasons, it has maintained close state-to-state relations with India, but never considered people-to-people relationships as worthy of pursuing.


A New Foreign Policy:

    It is interesting to see China declaring its foreign policy as polycentric competition and cooperation (and not international peace and friendship) in international relations so as to continue its national development and expand its hegemony over the world as the most powerful nation. To maintain its growth, it wants other states to continue to accept its exports. For its national development, it practices soft economic imperialism. We are better suited to adopt such a policy than China, instead of trying to play the role of a ‘Big Power’ and making expensive diplomatic efforts to squeeze into the UN Security Council with Veto power. 

    The present trends might lead to a contradiction in our foreign policy. Any foreign policy has to be dictated by a country’s current geo-political and economic necessities and, fortunately, India finds itself in a more favourable situation, thanks to the remittances of the non-resident Indians and dues as GST by our dynamic private sector in the urban areas. While admitting that we have to live as one family on this planet with a common destiny, we cannot, at the same time, join power Groups like G-7, G-20, BRICS, and Quad or enter into bi-lateral accords so as to tilt the balance of regional power in our favour. Such a nationalist power game might be enjoyable to our diplomats, as it justifies their existence. But, firstly, if Indians become nationalistic, then millions of People of Indian Origin (PIOs) and NRIs who are being elected as prime ministers and presidents in many foreign countries would lose their credibility and trust, as their loyalty would be suspected. Secondly, today's world is different. Already, the present big powers and the former superpowers are feeling powerless to bring peace and development to all people living on this Earth.

            Hence, instead, we should operate whole-heartedly and entirely through the UN bodies and Agencies and intensify inter-dependent economic relations with all the states. The costly diplomatic establishments set up directly in 173 countries are unnecessary, and instead, we can work though UN Agencies operating in those countries. All state departments should directly encourage people-to-people friendship and cooperation across the world. All interstate disputes should be quickly brought before international or regional courts and tribunals, without leaving the national diplomats to drag them on for decades. The UN General Assembly should be the forum to convince all states to commit themselves to a total disarmament starting with the nuclear arsenal. International civil society organisations and other NGOs are to be respected for their concern for the welfare of entire humankind and a secure planet. 


Why is It Too Late for Nationalism? 

    The temptation to make all Indians nationalists is impractical today for the following reasons: 

1. While human relations are going global in an irreversible manner, the political states in general are worried that the people living within their borders are gradually going out of their control. The way the states are treating their residents has become a matter of concern not only for the neighbouring states but also for other powerful states. 

2. Now, there is an active worldwide public opinion, as expressed by the international independent civil society organizations. The latter are not under the influence and control of any particular state. 

3. There are international Conventions and Treaties that every state must respect as they emphatically hold the safety and security of a human being of paramount importance to the international community. Just as citizens respect national laws, the states also should respect International Laws and Conventions. Intervention for humanitarian reasons, even the use of force on occasions by the UN Agencies is almost universally accepted. Defying states are often faced with boycotts of trade, export and import of essential goods and services by a majority of states. Many states are still dependent upon foreign aid. Niger, the African state is facing such a situation now. 

4. There are the UN General Assembly Resolutions that advise and guide the national policies in the interest of peace and justice and also condemn wanton aggression, as in the case of Russia right now. 

5. There are international and regional Councils and Courts, which judge the conduct of the states towards their citizens in terms of Fundamental Human Rights. 

6. The individual residents are wanting to live in affinity and cooperate with those who are outside the borders. The states are not able to control all their communications and transactions, as we see in the case of state actions against terrorist organisations and the exchange of crypto-currencies. 


Way Forward Is More Internal Democracy:

    As a reaction to the above strong and inevitable globalising trends, state bureaucracies and political leaders are likely to develop a strategy of resistance by glorifying the state and its performance. Nationalism is like opium fed by ambitious political leaders. Many elected representatives accept this since they share a small part of the cake of enjoying power for short periods. Such a regime is supported by the conservative elements in society that are apprehensive of all new social transformations that are fast taking place in society. The political leaders adopt majoritarianism in making decisions and impose authoritarianism that reduces individual freedoms. Nationalism would mean searching for unity, effacing diversity and showing intolerance towards minorities. Consequently, divisions and conflicts among various parts of India would grow, as we see in the case of North-Eastern regions.

           Further, we learn from experience that nationalism does not necessarily lead to people’s development. It is precisely this nationalistic spirit that makes us overestimate the level of our development. Large economies based on ‘paper wealth’ and high GDP growth rates without commensurate growth in productivity do not necessarily lead to Human Development and Social Development. Tax money is spent on prestigious and glamorous projects like buildings, monuments, statues and ceremonies, and diplomatic courtesies, rather than for people's education and health. There is no universal social security system just to make people wait to receive freebies from generous leaders. For example, for the last 75 years, the citizens have not been trusted and are not found capable of developing an early research and production base for defensive arms. 

           Empowerment of the citizen is more important in a democracy than empowerment of the state. Democracy is meant for the development of all residents in all aspects of development. Human development means concretely unhindered expression of freedoms and faculties inherent in a human being. Hence, we need to expand the meaning of Human Development, initially defined by UNDP in narrow quantitative aspects for survival; and the scope of Development Goals are to be subjected to and be in harmony with sustaining human development. 

The state and the political parties alone cannot be left to achieve all these universal humanistic values. It is possible only through citizen activism through civil societies and their interactive collaboration beyond national boundaries.     

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