Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Liberals are losing the ideological battle against nationalists

Over the last fortnight, we have seen a pitched battle in India—between “nationalists" and “liberals". After all, for most liberal elites, both in India and the West, nationalism is a dangerous, regressive and divisive impulse.

During the current Indo-Pak crisis, several liberals quoted from George Orwell’s classic 1945 essay Notes On Nationalism, where he distinguished between patriotism and nationalism. Patriots,wrote Orwell, are devoted to a particular place and way of life, which they believe to be the world’s best but have no wish to force on others. “Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality." However, no liberal quoted from later in the essay, where Orwell also condemns pacifists (“transferred nationalists") and Anglophobists (“negative nationalists"): “Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely…, one finds that (their disapproval is) directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover, they do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defence of western countries." Replace “Britain and the United States" and “western countries" with “India" in some liberal laments in mainstream and social media, and you will get my point.

As for Anglophobia, “Within the intelligentsia, a derisive and mildly hostile attitude towards Britain is more or less compulsory…. Many people were undisguisedly pleased when Singapore fell or when the British were driven out of Greece, and there was a remarkable unwillingness to believe in good news, e.g. El Alamein, or the number of German planes shot down in the Battle of Britain. English left-wing intellectuals did not, of course, actually want the Germans or Japanese to win the war, but many of them could not help getting a certain kick out of seeing their own country humiliated."

Even sociologist-turned-politician Yogendra Yadav, who is as liberal as they come, wrote in, post-Pulwama: “Our post-Independence liberal elite feels awkward about nationalism. Like the European elite, we have started associating nationalism with negativity, jingoism and ethnic supremacists. In doing so, we have cut ourselves off from the rich and inclusivist legacy of Indian nationalism. We want to live in a modern nation-state without caring for our nationhood."

If we go by Orwell’s definition, that a patriot believes that his particular place or way of life is the best, isn’t that a bit woolly-headed and closed-minded? On the other hand, I know quite a few nationalists who do not believe that India is the world’s best country and often complain about the problems our country suffers from. Several of them are trying to do something about it.

I believe that patriotism is a passive form of nationalism. Patriotism cannot exist without a nation, and a nation cannot survive without nationalism. It is one of the modern world’s foundational principles. Nationalism gave rise to the modern state system and was a liberating force in anticolonial freedom struggles across the globe. Democracy is a result of the creation of nation-states.

One of Karl Marx’s biggest mistakes was to assume that the working classes would rise above their national identities and never fight each other. Millions have died in wars since then, and the proletariat have invariably chosen nationalism over their supposed class interests.

The European Union has hardly been able to contain its members’ nationalistic agendas and universal cosmopolitanism will always remain confined to John Lennon’s Imagine.

Today, nationalism is more important than ever before as we have to balance national interests with the demands of a globalized economy and changing geopolitics. Mere patriotism will not do. Nationalistic China is attempting to build a global empire (while boxing in India). Russia has transnational ambitions. Orwell called patriotism “defensive, both militarily and culturally". India has been defensive for far too long. In an increasingly competitive world, we have to push our interests harder. We need more, not less, nationalism.

Of course, nationalism can get perverted—but let us term those outcomes more precisely as jingoism and chauvinism, not as one-label-fits-all nationalism. As Yael Tamir, former member of the Israeli Knesset, writes: “When liberals indiscriminately attack all forms of nationalism, they fuel an unnecessary ideological struggle, one that they are currently losing."

We need to develop better forms of nationalism, through every form of inclusion—social, political, financial—not through demagoguery or empty symbolism but by instilling true pride in every Indian heart. For that, we need something else too. As Swami Vivekananda said (and I paraphrase): You can’t expect someone to worship God on an empty stomach. Similarly, you can’t expect a household that can’t afford two meals a day to be very nationalistic. Or liberal.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’ and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines.

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