If Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament and author of 16 masterly English language non-fiction books of deep erudition and three fiction titles, had been born a white Christian American, he would surely have completed at least one term in the White House by now.
A successful politcian, accomplished literateur, exceptional wordsmith skilled in the cut and thrust of parliamentary and intellectual debate and gifted with personable charm, a white Tharoor would have been the natural successor of John F. Kennedy, arguably the most charismatic president in the history of the United States.
Unfortunately for him — but fortunately for latter-day India, Tharoor is a brown Indian. And unlike many of our countrymen would rather serve in heaven than rule in hell, he chose to become an Indian citizen and proud Hindu of the liberal school of this ancient creed, which has made a big comeback in its most illiberal avatar, in 21st century India.
Unsurprisingly, Tharoor has emerged as the most articulate public intellectual and critic of the BJP which swept the General Elections of 2014 and 2019, and inspired by the regressive Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the shadowy ideological mentor organisation of this all-conquering political party, is trying its best to transform contemporary India into an intolerant, majoritarian Hindu nation.
This conscientiously researched, brilliantly written book is divided into six sections. It opens with the Idea of Nationalism, traces its rise around the world and highlights the historical truth that nationalism is a relatively recent 18th century phenomenon that arose out of the American (1776) and French (1789) revolutions.
The second section, The Idea of India which has six chapters, traces the history of the Indian subcontinent, an agglomeration of over 500 kingdoms and princedoms owing fealty to Imperial Great Britain which ruled for almost two centuries before a united India emerged after the freedom struggle. Since then (1947), it has evolved into the world’s most populous democracy, governed according to the mandate of an extraordinarily liberal Constitution — a “living document”.
In the third section of this 462-page book, the learned author focuses light on The Hindutva Idea of India espoused by RSS/BJP. In sum, it is to reverse the legacy of the founding fathers of the nation who painstakingly crafted our uniquely egalitarian and inclusive Constitution, and transform it into a Hindu majoritarian rashtra or “Hindu Pakistan”.
Section four highlights the on-going “battle of belonging” and ‘Modi-fication’ agenda of the RSS/BJP and their hand-picked prime minister Narendra Modi to erode the country’s democratic institutions, impose Hindi as the lingua franca, demote the Muslim community, encourage (“soft signal”) religious and communal bigotry and enshrine the Hindu rashtra, by invoking ancient glories.
The fifth section of this absorbing history-cum-sociology polemic titled The Anxiety of Nationhood discusses the fractures manifesting in India’s unique national development project which began 70 years ago with an underdeveloped country starting to write a new history as an egalitarian, one-man-one-vote democracy. It compares and contrasts the RSS/BJP’s intolerant hindutva philosophy with Mahatma Gandhi’s inclusive and humane Hinduism, and investigates the Bharat vs. India fault-line, the widening North-South divide while advising the public of the importance of reaffirming our commitment to Tagore’s ‘idea of India’ and civic nationalism (commitment to common binding values) as opposed to the exclusionary ethno-religious nationalism of the ruling dispensation that’s hell-bent on alienating the country’s 150-million strong Muslim community for wrongs rooted in previous centuries.
Compelling the reader forward, in the last section titled Reclaiming India’s Soul, the author offers a prescription on ways and means to extricate the nation which by following false heroes with bankrupt ideologies has entered a cul-de-sac of its own making. For a start, Tharoor reminds us that for all its swagger and proclaimed mandate to overturn the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and leaders of the freedom movement — in which the RSS/BJP was conspicuously missing in action – and alter the basic structure of the Constitution of the world’s most populous democracy, the BJP received a mere 31 percent of the national vote in 2014, and 37 percent in 2019.
“If India is to reclaim its soul, the urgent national challenge is to restore, empower and renew the very institutions of civic nationalism that the BJP has commandeered and weakened. These are the institutions that can best protect minorities and the marginalised, that protect free speech and expression of unfashionable opinions, that elevate the principles and values above the interests of politicians in power, that offer shelter and aid to the vulnerable, and so create the habits and conventions that make democracy the safest of political systems for ordinary people to live under,” writes Tharoor.
More specifically, Parliament, state legislative assemblies and local governments; the judiciary and media whose legitimacy and powers are being steadily eroded. These are the institutions whose independence guaranteed by the Constitution must be protected in the final analysis by the people and, especially the educated middle class.
Empowerment and protection of independent, carefully conceptualised institutions against the whims and fancies of strongmen and ephemeral governments, is the theme song of this timely and thoroughly updated book.
Against the backdrop of an increasingly apolitical citizenry easily distracted by tall promises and grand circuses organised by the ruling dispensation which is incapable of adequately comprehending the long-term consequences of its often hasty and ill-considered decisions, The Battle of Belonging is a timely reminder that to create orderly, just, egalitarian and peaceful societies, citizens have an obligation to engage with public issues and speak up on matters of national importance.
This enlightening polemic makes a strong case for preservation and protection of the basic structure of the liberal, inclusive and egalitarian Constitution endowed upon us by the founding fathers of the nation. It is a timely reminder that continuous vigilance is indeed, the price of liberty.
Also read: Politically timely book: Why I am a Hindu