BJP/Congress must stop misusing patriotism to seduce voters

Minhaz Merchant
Minhaz MerchantMar 28, 2016 | 18:13

BJP/Congress must stop misusing patriotism to seduce voters

If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, what is the first? We'll answer that at the end of this article. For now, here's what patriotism means. 

First, it gives you the absolute right to dissent.

Second, it allows you the freedom to speak and the freedom not to.

Third, it lets you interpret patriotism and its country cousin, nationalism, in your own individual way.


It's only when dissent turns into incitement that it becomes a criminal offence.

In a liberal democracy, dissent must be welcomed. A plurality of views enriches debate. From sturdy debate follows reform.

The problem in India is that political parties use patriotism and nationalism to seduce their respective votebanks. The BJP uses nationalism as a pseudonym for Hindutva because it appears more inclusive. No one can argue about the need to be a nationalist. There are several interpretations of nationalism but few have the time or intellectual stamina to debate them.

The Congress has long used secularism as its calling card. In today's polarised atmosphere though, the party has realised that secularism, as practised by it for decades, is a discredited commodity. It has therefore embraced "pluralism", which is an elastic concept and as inclusive as you wish it to be.

So the two major political parties have staked out their positions well ahead of the election calendar: five state assemblies this summer, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat next year, and the Lok Sabha election in 2019. For the BJP, hard Hindutva has been put into cold storage. (It can be thawed any time a future electoral occasion demands.)


Soft Hindutva is more useful: it is anyway another name for nationalism, but without the ideological baggage that the Congress and Left-leaning opposition parties can readily attack. 

Most Indians, Muslims included, are happy to say "Bharat Mata ki jai". Javed Akhtar is just one example. But there are Muslims (and a few Hindus as well) who will not say it. Their right to remain silent must be respected. Condemn them, if you wish, but do not coerce them. If you do, you lose the greatest civilisational gift Hinduism has given the world: tolerance.

Hinduism is the only religion in the world that accepts all faiths as equal. Islam does not. Christianity does not. Judaism does not. Zoroastrianism does not. Each advocates its own path as the most righteous.

Hinduism makes no such claim. Like a sponge it absorbs all method of prayer, individual belief and even atheism. There are no harsh punishments for apostasy, no confessions by sinners to a priest, no call to violence.

All of this can be both a strength and a weakness. Strength because when you allow space, elasticity and freedom, your flock will remain faithful. Weakness because too much laxity can lead to division. A fine line has to be drawn. But if you err, err on the side of liberalism.  


The rigid caste system has been a principal reason why, despite comprising 79 per cent of the population, Hindus in India often feel they are a minority. When British Prime Minister David Cameron declared last year that Britain was a "proud Christian country", there wasn't a murmur of protest. Britain after all is a Christian majoritarian country. Now imagine if Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said India is a "proud Hindu country". All hell would have broken loose. The question would immediately be asked: is India a majoritarian country?

The short answer: no.

Why do over 210 million Muslims and Christians live in India in relative peace? If Hindus were really intolerant as some have speciously claimed and as, for example, Muslims are in most Muslim-majority countries - India would have turned into a cauldron of violence long ago.

As I asked at the beginning of this article, if patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, what is the first? There are alas three strong contenders: politics, religion and journalism. Take your pick.

Last updated: March 28, 2016 | 18:13
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