2018 Newsletter 6: Cultivating the Nation

This newsletter is also online here. Please leave a comment on the blog page if you want to respond in public or reply to this email with your thoughts if you don't.

India is going to the polls in a year or less. After many years of elections being primarily focused on developmental issues, this coming election is a referendum on the nation qua nation, i.e., what is India and who is it for?

For many years, a standard complaint was that the ruling elite was in it for themselves without having the nation in mind. Elites will always look out for their interests but it’s clear that the current ruling dispensation also has a nation building project in mind - and a capital building project and a religion building project that goes with the nation building project. I happen to think that this particular nation building project is both unstable and unjust but I recognize that a nation building exercise is under way.

Therefore, it makes sense to ask the question: what is India? How to buildcultivate a new India?

It’s 2018, do we even need to build nations anymore? There’s reason to think the nation is a collapsing category, that the only way to shore its fortunes in the face of teeming forces of capital and climate is to create a smokescreen, i.e., blame the nation’s ills on enemies within and without. No surprise there. Of course, enemy-seeking is guaranteed to create a negative feedback loop that will undermine the nation as such, but we won’t go there; I will accept the nation as a given in this post and its sequels.

Instead, let me turn my irritated gaze toward the second half of nation-building, i.e., the building. It’s an industrial metaphor isn’t it, recalling images of men and women laying down railway lines in Soviet era posters. Wrong metaphor if you ask me. Let’s go for an earthier metaphor: cultivating the nation. Let’s say the nation is a farm that creates bounty if tended well and disaster if tended badly. What kind of farm do we want? So many decisions:

  1. Which crops should we cultivate? For cash or for sustenance?

  2. Is monoculture a good idea?

  3. Should we share our fields with other claimants or should we declare them as pests and try to kill them?

And so on.

Back to the 2019 (2018?) elections.

While I am not in the country right now, I will be spending quite a bit of time there over the next twelve months, and like most Indian citizens, I have a deep interest in the outcome even if I disagree with my fellow Indians as to the shape of a desirable outcome.

Disagreement is a genteel word: at its worst it reminds me of children arguing over whether one side cheated when it threw the ball this way rather than that way. Indian politics is not a genteel sport: it’s not “public reasoning” where both sides argue and then sit down to have tea. It’s a blood sport. We are not talking about theoretical debates over freedom of speech here. Nevertheless, I believe that we can’t have real politics unless we offer political recognition (not political legitimacy) to rabid partisans of every type.

I am a partisan who wants his side to win, but one who recognizes that others are legitimate partisans who want their side to win, which brings me to the question motivating this post: how to create a political commons that recognizes all its occupants even as they might be at each other’s throats?

In my not so humble opinion, we can’t set about the task of nation cultivation unless we answer that question.

I say this because modern liberal political theories and institutions don’t acknowledge the universality of violence in the core of their theorizing, except perhaps in international relations where there’s some discussion of just wars. That’s because the sovereign, i.e., the state acting in the name of the people, is supposed to stamp out all violence that doesn’t stem from the sovereign’s hand - note how the SEP article says at the very beginning “Sovereignty, though its meanings have varied across history, also has a core meaning, supreme authority within a territory.” Isn’t that the idea behind the leviathan? In this scheme, violence by non-state actors is a sign of state failure. Yet, Indian politics is full of violence: from assassinations and murders to strikes and riots, and at least in India, violence is both a strategy for electoral success (1984/2002) as well as being tempered by electoral success (Assam and the AGP for example).

The Indian state has never been the supreme authority within its territory - neither has the Pakistani state for that matter. In fact, supreme authority is the exception rather than the rule in the annals of statehood. That’s why it’s possible for the RSS chief to say he can deploy a militia faster than the Indian military. The point is not whether the RSS can or not, but what it means when he says so. I guess that means we are a semi-failed state. Nation cultivation 101 fail ho gaya. Fortunately, I am past the age of taking exams so I am willing to ask silly questions about alternative cultivation patterns.

Such as: why is the “state as sovereign” the right imagination of the nation? Or to even more provocative: what’s a just riot? Is that even possible? If not, is it because we have bought into a theory of violence in which only the state can conduct its affairs with a rifle in hand? I mean, when the US congress deliberated with grave concern whether the US should invade Iraq (not once but twice!) and passed resolutions and quoted this and that section of the constitution, was that just? If so, what kind of justice is it that it’s legitimately possible to kill millions at a time but not hundreds? We need to tease apart our assumptions about the relationship between government and the gun.

Not that I am advocating riots; far from it, but it’s wrong to assume that the Indian state will act as a leviathan exerting monopoly over violence and prevent illegitimate non-state violence, i.e., anything besides police action and war. That’s always been a terrible hypothesis about the Indian nation building cultivation project and will increasingly be proven wrong even in those parts of the world where the state plays that monopolistic role today. Not that those parts of the world were immune - it’s just that after the orgy of the second world war, an international leviathan, i.e., the US, prevented internal violence within its direct sphere of moral concern, i.e., North America and Western Europe, while outsourcing violence in its amoral sphere of control to client regimes.

Anyway, much to think about Loksabha 2019, even if you don’t have a direct stake in the outcome of the Indian elections: metaphors of cultivation, ideas of nationhood, ideas of recognition and legitimacy, ideas of right and wrong presence on a given piece of land, and underlying it all, the reality of violence in every sphere. It also offers venue for reflection on some of the most charged terms in the desi vocabulary: himsa, ahimsa and dharma.

PS: Let me also admit that I have an ulterior motive here: I am asking this Indian question as a surrogate for an even larger question: how do we create a political commons for all the creatures on this planet even as some of them are literally at the throats of the others?