This is the first part of a two-part series of “To be or not to be…”. In the backdrop of some recent political events in my own country, I have been trying to clear my mind of some deeper political issues, and these posts are rather unripe fruits of that self-questioning. Nevertheless, I have tried to avoid references to nitty-gritty of political events to the minimum, so as to avoid any partiality in my analysis.
The rise of Donald Trump and Brexit are by no means isolated events.
For the first time in almost seven decades, the far-right Freedom Party of Austria with their nationalist rhetoric targeting Muslims (shifting away from their primary hostility towards Jews to resonate well with voters of Serbian descent), immigrants and the European Union, has won the first round of the presidential election. Hungary, after giving communism the boot in 1989, is increasingly leaning towards the right, with both the Prime Minister and the President coming from the country’s major conservative party – Fidesz. Jobbik, another Hungarian right-wing political party (blatantly anti-Semitic, anti-Romani, racist and homophobic) is also gaining popularity steadily (currently enjoying 21% of the national vote share). Even in other European countries, the percentage of votes won by nationalist political parties are quite high in their most recent national elections: the Swiss People’s Party got 29% of the votes, the Danish People’s Party got 21%, the Finns got 18%, the National Front in France got 14%, the Freedom Party got 10% in the Netherlands – to name just a few. In Cyprus, the far-right party ELAM secured two parliamentary seats for the first time in the country’s history.
When these political trends in Europe are discussed in conjunction with Brexit, usually the common explanation put forward by reporters and analysts is that the so-called blue-collared white European is protesting against immigrants taking away their jobs in a situation already made vulnerable by the Great Recession, and the right-wing parties are just giving their pent-up bitterness a voice. While I do not refute this claim (because a demographic analysis of the vote shares of these nationalist parties does seem to corroborate such an explanation), I believe there is something more significant and more fundamental (than just a reaction to economic distress and migration policies) going on in the background of these political manifestations. This is evidenced by what is happening outside the developed Western world – countries like India with steadily growing standards of living for a vast majority of the population, and completely immune to any immigration woes. While the rise of the right-wing in the UK has manifested itself in the grand event of Brexit, Great Britain’s erstwhile colony India is seeing the resurgence of nationalist forces in a subtler way. In 2014 the world’s largest functioning democracy elected as its Prime Minister a man, with affiliation to a Hindu-nationalist organization, who not too long ago presided over a massive anti-Muslim pogrom; and ever since hysterical diatribes and grandiloquent debates on to how to become “a true Indian” has not left the daily newsfeed in the country.
So, the question is – why is nationalism on the rise everywhere?
I believe the answer is nations! Well, I am not trying to be pathetically funny or tautological here. Let me explain.
Nations, as we know them now, were built as a project to distinguish one nation from the other sufficiently enough so that the participatory democratic institutions of different nations do not overlap. In the post-War era, the formation of nation-states overthrowing the multinational dynasties that ruled largely against the wishes of people legitimized the democratic rights of citizens to decide what was in the ‘national’ interest. The way we have designed our current democratic institutions is to serve the ‘nation-state’ as opposed to any international entity or cause. The current political institutions have brought up people as citizens of nations, but we ask them to behave as citizens of the global village. Isn’t that asking too much? Ambitious internationalism in the form of the EU or the NATO or the SAARC is faltering not only because of bureaucratic failure but because of the very fact that they are solely bureaucratic and do not touch the democratic conscience of the general population. People at large do not have any stake in internationalism, and hence democratic populism within the narrow confines of a nation will no wonder throw up nationalistic forces, particularly at times like now when economic resources are scarce, and cupboard-love and fear are easy to stoke. Democracy (particularly representative parliamentary democracy) inherently has a populist streak in it that inevitably gives way to nationalist fervour, if such democracy is practised within the political institutions of a nation-state. I believe what we are witnessing across the globe should not be interpreted as a move towards the political right (leave alone fascist forces), but a move towards more and more democratic populism – populism at the cost of sound policy-making. Policy-making is inherently ‘elite’ in the sense that policy is made by professionals, and populism is nothing but anti-elitism. It is one thing to be romantically attached to the inherent anti-elitism of democracy, but quite another to leave policy-making to rhetoric.
The liberals will contradict me here saying that love for one’s country need not necessarily boil down to toxic ‘nationalism’ and that there is a middle ground called ‘patriotism’. Let us look into these so-called difference between ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’. Without going to the lexicon, the most charitable interpretation of the difference can be that patriotism, unlike nationalism, does not involve forcing one’s group-identity (cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious or nationalistic) onto others – you can believe you are the best, but you cannot start forcing other people to follow your ‘best’ practices. Even if we grant ourselves the highly disputable credit that no nation at this point is trying to impose itself onto other nations, we cannot say all is well with patriotism. My contention against patriotism may seem etymological, but I believe it has some deeper worth. The word ‘patriot’ has its roots in the Latin word ‘pater’ which means ‘father’. It is important to note that love for one’s country is being captured by a so-called masculine word – why don’t we use the feminine word ‘matriotism’? It is interesting that ‘matriotism’ is indeed a valid meaningful word, but it means school-pride or parish-pride. Why? Why is it that we associate love for our countries with the masculine and petty parish-love with the feminine? I believe the answer lies in our conceptualization of what constitutes a country. If we identify a country as something defined by a political border guarded by the military, or a flag flying high over the President’s palace, then it only makes sense to think that the ‘lofty’ job of loving (read protecting from foreign threat) that country can be better performed by the masculine, while the ‘petty’ job of ensuring politico-socio-economic freedoms and human rights of the weak and marginalized sections of the society within a country can be taken care of by the feminine. Thus, patriotism essentially translates to fear of the ‘other’ keeping the ‘countrymen’ united despite blatant social divisions persisting within the nation – classic male chauvinism! One may think that patriotism helps people transcend petty self-love by focussing their love for something larger than their immediate family, but such lofty ideal does not stand the test of people’s attitude towards their fellow citizens with a minority identity. Even if we assume away the problem of aggressive nationalism across international borders, what is happening inside national borders cannot be overlooked. Every nation has its own minority groups. If democracy within a nation is construed as majority rule, then populism leaves little room for minority voices within a country. Such stifling of minority voices can lead to the strengthening of identity-divisions in the society that eventually translates into fear of ‘the other’ identity, and ultimately the majoritarian nationalist forces start painting these minorities within the nation as enemies of the same nation.
I am not advocating matriotism over patriotism but abandoning the very premise that one needs to love one’s nation in order to be a good citizen. I believe being a good citizen essentially boils down to being a humanist instead of a nationalist, or a patriot or a matriot. But what form of humanism I am advocating here needs separate discussion, and it is going to be the subject matter of my next article. So stay tuned!
 The Romani or Roma are a nomadic ethnic group, presumably originating from the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent, and living mostly in Europe and the Americas. They are not to be confused with the Romans.