Brexit has brought back fears of Modi's 2014 triumph

Piya Srinivasan
Piya SrinivasanJun 25, 2016 | 15:20

Brexit has brought back fears of Modi's 2014 triumph

It seems that Brexit has unleashed a monster. And that monster’s name is national sovereignty. There was the time after World War II that six European countries joined hands politically and economically to prevent invasions from neighbouring countries, and broker peace through trade.

After a long period of economic cooperation, and the free movement of people, goods and services across borders, the cracks have begun to show. It has been no more than 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but today the desire for borders seems to have gained new currency. In fact, we are witnessing a retreat into and a resurgent drive for maintaining national borders.


Why Brexit happened is probably a question for the history books to answer. The world (which has often only meant the West) will be grappling with too many chaotic outcomes in the foreseeable future to map the underlying rationale for voting "Leave".

Whether it was primarily identity politics, immigration fears, increasing disillusionment with the abstract idea of a Union where material profit trumps moral considerations, the clash of ideologies between different generations of British voters, or a nation divided along class lines, time will tell.

Brexit has not only shocked the world (and David Cameron, who resigned after the referendum went against the outcome he had imagined), but also the financial markets. The pound has taken a bad, bad pounding.

Why Brexit happened is probably a question for the history books to answer.

But let us forget, for a second, what foreign investors are thinking. Let us forget about the all too real fears of a possible Brexit-induced recession, the anxiety of EU citizens living, loving and working in the UK, whose livelihoods lie at the mercy of divorce negotiations which will determine whether they will be deported, and the bubbling anger of the British youth who’ve just been denied the right to live, love and work in 27 European countries.


About the political crisis that Britain’s new prime minister will face with regard to implementing Article 50, which lists the rules to be followed by any member country leaving the EU; the impending negotiations over free movement, trade regulations and tariffs; how to justify so many lost opportunities; Euroscepticism and the possibilities of other referendums; the need to make EU more relevant and cohesive in terms of job markets.

What Brexit has driven me to think about is questions of democracy. Of emotion trumping logic. The Leave voters belonged to an older age demographic, and an article in The Guardian states that many of them had not received a formal education, while the younger, college-going population mainly voted Remain.

There’s no surprise there. For millions of young Britons, Brexit means a cataclysmic loss of opportunities.

Some columnists are likening Brexit to a "working-class revolt". Pro-Brexit ministers used rhetoric like their constituents complaining about not hearing English spoken while walking down the street, and leaders of parties like UKIP capitalised on fears of immigrants taking away their jobs, of immigrants committing crimes, using government services and changing the socio-cultural and emotional landscape of the nation.


UKIP leader and demagogue Nigel Farage even declared June 23 as "Independence Day" for Britain! The irony of this, I’m sure, is not lost on many.

The British first tried to impose their language, law and values through annexation, while draining their colonies of capital and wealth to supplement their own economy and fund wars.

For a race that has been our political masters and plundered our economic interests for close to two centuries, their exit seems to have thrown concerns of commerce, trade and markets to the winds.

Worse, this urgency seems precipitated by a right-wing sentiment that seems to be increasingly gaining valence in different parts of the world.

The hyperbolic rhetoric of Farage’s speech about this vote being a victory for "real people, ordinary people, decent people" and signifying "honesty, decency, and belief in nation" is paving the way for anti-immigration sentiment and a hostile, xenophobic nationalism.

The immigrant paranoia unleashed across Europe by the Syrian refugee crisis, and the hyperbole around migrants taking away jobs is a tune that is only too familiar in India.

This referendum, though vastly different from electing a government, has left me with some of the same fears and trepidations that the 2014 general elections in India did. Though Brexit doesn’t affect me directly, I belong to a generation that was brought up to think across borders, not take refuge in provincialism.

Modi came to power riding on the crest of a pro-Hindu wave.

But now I find myself facing a world that seems to think nationalism is back in vogue, including, of course, my own country.

The rhetoric is not very different. The BJP came to power riding on the crest of a pro-Hindu wave, and a resurgence of majoritarian nationalist sentiment, mixed with anti-immigrant rhetoric whose most significant outcome one can see in the Assam elections, and the BJP-AGP government’s promise to weed out "Bangladeshis" who entered the country after 1971.

The leaders of these countries could well be taking a leaf out of each other’s books. We all know who’s going to be playing this referendum as his Trump card.

For me, the questions emerging from Brexit are basic. A referendum is one of the hallmarks, of direct democracy. But it is also a risk; a risk of handing the power of decision-making in one sweep, as the vote indicates, to chests puffed out with nationalistic fervour.

It’s no secret that the nationalism card has the most compelling allure for many – the promise of improved livelihoods, association with people of the same creed and colour, the collective mistrust of the outsider.

It’s very easy to give in to nationalist sentiment because it appeals to a fundamental need in humans – the need to belong and preserve what people perceive as rightfully theirs, from jobs to identities. But at what cost?

Britain is battling the same issues that Indians had to contend with when the 2014 election results were declared. Many stood aghast thinking about the implications of a Hindutva-led majority government in power. 

Of course, not much needed to be left to the imagination as the outcome of the electorate’s decisions played out soon enough, resulting in the murder of rationalists, charges of sedition and anti-national activities on university campuses, the killing of Muslims over the beef ban and cattle protectionism.

Recently India also saw competing nationalisms trying to gain dominance: an anti-caste nationalism, a Jat and Patel-led nationalism, cyber-nationalism, a liberal cynicism about any form of nationalism. Amidst all this, India is still to find its feet with regard to any consensus on the issue.  

These lines were written by one no less than a son of the British soil. In the Merchant of Venice, the Prince of Morocco says:

"What many men desire"– that "many" may be meant

By the fool multitude that choose by show,

Not learning more than the fond eye doth teach

So is the decision of the "fool multitude" too heavy an economic price to pay for the outcome of a democratic decision? What really drives national interest – economic concerns or concerns of nationalist sovereignty?

Should Britain be thankful for its regained sovereignty or dismayed by the complicated implications of this divorce, and is it really a win for democracy, the great leveller?

Maybe it is. But this can properly be answered only as we see the effects of the Brexit vote unravel in real time.

Unless the gains from one part or class of the country travel down across class (and caste, in India) there will always be anger and resentment. And when put to the test, democracy will speak.

The only question that remains is, how will we deal with it? This is a question that Britain must ask, and a question that we in India are still answering.

Last updated: June 25, 2016 | 15:20
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