A file photo of Rahul Gandhi
A file photo of Rahul Gandhi

Opinion | What is this ‘idea of India’ Rahul Gandhi talks about?

There is no such thing as the idea of India. We cannot be sure what is Indian about India in the first place

On Wednesday, when Rahul Gandhi formally resigned as president of the Congress by issuing a public letter in English, he revealed that he does not have a talent for malice, which is a very useful gift in his profession. He said: “I have no hatred or anger towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but every living cell in my body instinctively resists their idea of India."

This is completely different from what Narendra Modi told his biographer, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, about his feelings for the Congress party as a child: “…the strong hatred towards the Congress which was prevalent at that time became part of me. I think it impacted even the mind of the child... People had a tremendous dislike for the Congress... I asked the elders why they were burning the effigies and they said that the Congress had done something wrong—had done harm to us."

When people hate, this is exactly how they hate. They do not behave like Gandhi. We don’t separate humans from the organization that they constitute, and only “instinctively resist their idea" as though we are not indulging in hate but in waste disposal in Singapore. A person who thinks of hate in this manner has confused the parlour tricks of sophisticated articulation with a powerful human emotion. What “every living cell" in Rahul’s body stands for is even more abstract but very familiar to all of us. In his letter, he has mentioned concepts like the “fabric of India" and “idea of India". He has, naturally, implied that there is the Congress “idea of India" that is superior to the BJP’s “idea of India".

What exactly is this “idea of India"? What is, first of all, the Congress idea of India that he has invoked many times, maybe inspired by the alluring title of Sunil Khilnani’s influential book, published in 1997, on the political and economic ideas that newly independent India had adopted. But outside academics, in the nation and times we have lived, is there such a thing as the “idea of India"? Is this idea a reflection of how Indians in general are, or is it an instruction to all of us on how we ought to be?

From various speeches of Gandhi, it appears that his idea of India is a bit of both. He has a theory about our character and a theory about our future story arcs. He says we are innately of a nice sweet ancient type.

His idea of India is clearly flattering. We are, he says, “compassionate" and filled with love for others. But then this could be the summary of almost all nations in the world as told by their worst writers. Hundreds of professional politicians, and politicians who are called poet laureates and other things, have described their lands in this manner. When India talks about “heritage", you would think no one else has heritage. Actually, I should admit, as a boy I was so enchanted by the way India spoke of its rivers that I thought no other country had rivers. This, when I was yet to see a single river in full spate in Tamil Nadu. I also thought no other country had villages.

It was inevitable that Gandhi, in his letter, would celebrate “diversity": “India has never and will never be one voice. It is and always will be a symphony of voices". Yet, in his view, there is one correct idea of India.

The fact is that there is no such thing as the idea of India. First of all, we cannot be sure what is Indian about India. Every single scholar who has tried to answer the question, “what unites India" has emerged from the exercise silly. In the past, I have heard them mention cricket, democracy and even English and “Bollywood", but strangely not Hinduism because that would be risky territory for them. But all along, what really unites India is, very simply, our habit of being Indian. India is the proof that a nation needs to have no great stirring virtues and nothing in common to remain a nation. A nation is a habit. Everything else is intellectual retrofitting. You are born, you are told this is your nation, you learn of the borders, you learn the fables of history and foes, you accept, and you love in simple ways. Here, generations have lived peacefully and violently, with compassion and cruelty. There are no defining Indian virtues. Every flattering myth about ourselves we know to be lies (“We are secular"), or as the misunderstanding of the naivety of the provincial poor (“The guest is God").

A habit is real, and serious. But then doesn’t habit require a fable to survive? Yes, a habit requires a story, but not to survive, rather to find meaning in an otherwise pointless identity.

The BJP, too, has an idea of India. Rahul does not fully explain what his arch rivals stand for. All he says is such things as, “What they fear, I embrace." What is the BJP’s idea of India? Before Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, from his speeches it appeared that his idea of India was a place where everyone was equal, but Hindus were more equal; where a new economic order would bring back prosperity and global respect; and where the poor would be trained not to be alms-seekers, but to work towards the greater prosperity of the nation. But now, the BJP’s official idea of India is similar to Gandhi’s. We are ancient, good and peaceful.

In reality, Gandhi’s idea of India and Modi’s are theories about people. And, they represent the two broad kinds of ideas from which everything else flows: one that has immense respect for human nature, and the other that has a lower opinion of the human character. In my view, ideas that do not overestimate human character eventually triumph.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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