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One unexpected fallout of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two years in office is the centre-staging of nationalism. Nationalism, after a long duration, is once again at the heart of both policy and discourse in India. The resurgence of nationalism, however, is a worldwide rather than uniquely Indian phenomenon.

The revival of nationalism came as a surprise to most experts. For decades, nationalism was not only considered passé, but almost became a bad word. Social and political theory confidently advanced post-nationalist models of the global order.

But they underestimated the resilience of nationalism. The largest free association of states in the post-World War era, the European Union, today appears breakable if not doomed. Not only has one of its largest members, Britain, decided to exit, but several other member-states no longer seem sure of its future. Moreover, the influx of not-too-welcome refugees has only led to the strengthening of national identities.

Indian nationalism, however, is not quite as negative or defensive. It is a positive, even assertive upsurge. Its central theme, tone, and tenor is the expectation that India can be great again. More than anyone else, it is Modi that has made Indians feel this way; he has restored the confidence of an entire civilization in its sense of manifest destiny. He has made India and Indians proud once more.

A renewed belief in India has also resulted in the reinvigoration of India’s civilizational mission, which lay dormant, if not moribund, since independence. The millennial sense of special purpose and promise that fired the freedom movement went totally missing from the post-independence national imagination. That is what, a hundred years ago, gave Indians a sense of moral as well as spiritual ascendancy over their colonizers. But for long, this sense of India’s special calling lay trampled and obscured.

But what is India’s civilizational mission? This is a question that few pause to ponder over. If we go by what philosopher Aurobindo Ghose said, then India rises for dharma, not for its own selfish interests.

To spell out the contents of such dharmic nationalism, we might argue that India’s special gifts include non-dualism in the realm of metaphysics, swaraj or non-aggressive autonomy in the realm of politics, and non-exclusionism in the realm of culture.

Modi’s two-pronged strategy to offer a corruption-free, efficient government within the country and to improve India’s image overseas have contributed to such a dharmic nationalism. Robust economic growth and a more muscular foreign policy add to this sense of India’s strength. Indians were tired of weak, wishy-washy, and indecisive leaders. Modi demonstrates strength and commitment. At his best, he can also be inspiring and visionary.

In the recent past, scam after brazen scam made us hang our heads in shame. The apathy and indifference of government, not just of selfish netas but of callous babus, made us feel alienated from the state. All the while, the ultra-rich found new ways of making even more money in India and stashing it away abroad. Rich or poor, no one felt a sense of belonging and ownership. There was an almost insurmountable trust deficit between the rulers and the ruled. In the face of severe odds, Modi has rehabilitated our idealism. Indians en masse have now become enthused with the possibility of India rising to new heights.

Now government means business; for the first time both ministers and bureaucrats seem to be accountable not just to their superiors but also to the people whom they are supposed to serve. Modi has led from the front by calling himself India’s first sewak or servant. Also, for the first time in decades, government does not seem to represent or favour a particular section of society. Modi’s nationalism, thus, is the chant of the mantra of unity, not division. Modi has also spoken out against excesses of Hindutvawadis, including self-proclaimed vigilantes. This shows a much-needed corrective to hyper-nationalism.

A charge may be levelled that the whole thrust of this national upswing is Hindu. This must be acknowledged; it is Hindus at large, who are fired by the zeal to unite and reassert themselves in the world.

Like Indian, “Hindu" too is no longer a term of shame or abuse. Today, those who poke fun at Hindu symbols, Hindu ideas, and Hindu identity find themselves not only on the back foot but outflanked by vast numbers of detractors and critics the world over. The self-hating Hindu has gone out of fashion.

In the process, some of his admirers have gone to the extent of calling Modi the yuga purush, the epochal man. Modi may well be the yuga purush—or he may not. But if he gets a second term, he will certainly change India in a lasting and significant way. This is the most important thing to bear in mind when trying to understand the phenomenon that is Modi.

What, then is the meaning of Modi? He no doubt means different things to different people; in that sense there are as many Modis as there are there are Indias, each Modi corresponding to a certain idea of India. But one thing is incontrovertible.

The idea of Narendara Modi is more important than Narendra Modi himself. Because it is this idea of Modi—at once larger, more powerful, and far-reaching in its appeal than the man—that can be the catalyst for change and the driver for the transformation of India.

Therein lies the sense and salience of “Namo" nationalism. It signifies not just the re-sacralization of the nation, but Modi’s own special contribution to both the discourse and practice of nationalism.

Makarand R. Paranjape is a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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