(I’m posting this now, because I have to rush for work. I’m not too satisfied with how the post is written, though, so I’ll probably continue to edit and update it over the day/ week. Your comments will be welcome, as always.)
More than three years ago, Ravikiran inserted these lines into a blogpost about why Sonia shouldn’t be PM:
But nationalism isn’t discovered, it is constructed. Every generation finds things we have in common, things that we share, things that we value and things that we can be proud of, and builds a nationalism out of it. Just because it is constructed it doesn’t mean that it isn’t real.
When I say that “X” is something we share it doesn’t mean that every Indian shares “X” and that anyone who doesn’t appreciate “X” isn’t an Indian. But I am saying that many Indians share it, and X, Y and Z together defines Indianness.
These were practically throwaway lines, but they somehow packed more punch than the rest of the blogpost. The insight here is utterly stunning.
But why am I bringing up a three year old blogpost? Because it offers answers to questions raised in a three month old blogpost! This one on The Acorn, where Nitin asks what India is fighting for, besides territory and people:
Nationalism was given a nasty connotation decades ago, and going by its general portrayal in the international media, even patriotism is somehow suspect (except, that is, if you are in America). Yet without a sense of patriotism, a sense of shared values worth defending, it is hard to see how plural democratic societies can prevail over totalitarian ideologies.
And now, I’ll bring in a third angle, from Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail (read more about it at the Wikipedia entry, or the official site), which says:
The same Long Tail forces that are leading to an explosion of variety and and abundant choice in the content we consume are also tending to lead us into tribal eddies. When mass culture breaks apart, it doesn’t re-form into a different mass. Instead, it turns into millions of microcultures, which coexist and interact in a baffling array of ways.
As a result, we can now treat culture as not one big blanket, but as the superposition of many interwoven threads, each of which is individually addressable and connects different groups of people simultaneously.
In short, we’re seeing a shift from mass culture to massively parallel culture. Whether we think of it this way or not, each of us belongs to many different tribes simultaneously, often overlapping (geek culture and LEGO), often not (tennis and punk-funk). We share some interests with out colleagues and some with our families, but not all of our interests. Increasingly, we have other people to share them with, people we have never met or even think of as individuals (e.g., blog authors or playlist creators).
Now, obviously Long Tail forces are going to operate much slower in India than they are in the United States. But when they do, two things are going to happen:
- Any attempt to define India or Indianness through One Grand Idea is going to be even more doomed to failure. This holds for attempts to impose Hindi on the rest of the country, or trying to push a top-down version of Hindutva as the BJP once tried, or to go the 1980s Doordarshan route and aim for National Integration through Repeated Airplay of Bharat Bala videos.
(I’d also like to point out here that an idea of cultural nationalism based on One Grand Idea is untenable even now. If your idea of India is based on commonality of culture, then Akhand Bharat in’t just desirable, it’s a moral imperative. And it would have to incorporate not just Pakistan and Nepal and Bangladesh, but everything up to Indochina and Bali and even Jackson Heights and Southall.)
- But paradoxically, national integration will actually improve as Indians create new cultural touchpoints which will be shared across geography and demographics. A hundred years ago, a Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya novel had no audience outside literate Bengalis. Now, YouTube allows a music enthusiast from Bangalore to see Bangla rock videos; online forums allow geeks sitting in Madras and Ludhiana to help each other out with Perl problems, and blogs make it possible for a TDC to appreciate humour grounded in Tamil culture. Common cultures will be created faster, except that the creation will be messy and undirected and emergent, and quite probably the despair of the eighty-year olds in political parties and the Sangh Parivar.
What’s going to make things even messier is that these new shared cultures could very easily spring up across national borders. So Indians and Pakistanis could have even more of a shared culture, while India and Pakistan continue to be antithetical ideas and antagonistic states. Which brings us to the real point of this post: how the hell do you create and spread an idea that transforms the nature of the state? How do you infuse the Indian government with the idea that it’s meant to empower its citizens, not dictate to them, and how do you change the mindset of the Pakistani state to worrying about the growth of Pakistan, not the liberation of Kashmir or the quelling of India?
That is probably going to require creating institutions like think tanks and political parties and liberal newspapers, which is going to be much more painful and complicated than people in different states bonding over the same YouTube video. The costs of creating such institutions is probably much less today then it was ten years ago, but how to drive the costs down – and create more incentives for doing so – is an open question, and one which I’ll hopefully write more about in the near future.