Since the past year, Rahul Gandhi of the Congress Party has made rather a meal of trying to establish that India is not a nation, but a Union of States. While the distinction may appear trivial to the lay reader, and efforts to make that distinction may seem like hair-splitting, they are not.
In reality, seeking to create a fundamental difference between India the union of states, and India the nation, is part of a guileful political theory which has come into vogue in the past decade or so. This theory is called subnationalism.
Gandhi’s latest attempt to sell his not-a-nation line was on 20 May in London, when, at the very outset of his public interaction, he once again regurgitated his premise that the constitution defined India as a union of states, and not as a nation.
Many Indians were angered by this, and showered Gandhi with choice abuse on social media, because they felt he was being needlessly divisive. Others pointed out that the word ‘nation’ appears in the preamble of the very constitution Gandhi referred to, and uproariously questioned his reading and comprehension skills.
But in their anger and excitement, very few bothered to ask the important questions: what exactly is Gandhi up to? Why is he plugging subnationalism? What does he seek to achieve by trying to establish a difference between a union of states and a nation, when it is common knowledge that such a difference doesn’t exist?
Some answers will be provided in this piece, and none of them are heartening.
Subnationalism is defined as the assertion of a province’s aims and interests, which are different from those of the nation it belongs to.
A good description is available on a civil services exam tutorial website, along with a detailed explanation, written in 2017, of what subnationalism is. The same online link is thrown up by different web searches, and it is indeed instructive.
Apparently, IAS aspirants are being taught that subnationalism is a valid political theory; it is supposed to be a positive, “constitutive element of democracy”, which “can be seen as a counter-narrative to the idea of aggressive nationalism that restricts any alternative ideas of self-identification”.
Ah, so subnationalism is meant to counter nationalism. But this description is not an original thought by the tutorial’s staff. Rather, the website’s text draws upon an article from 2017 in a national English daily titled, ‘Subnationalism not a threat’.
That article in turn, quotes a 2011 book by a clutch of Marxian academicians, uses maddeningly-meaningless made-up terms like ‘consociational’, and promotes, through a linguistic paradox, the concept of a ‘state-nation’ rather than a ‘nation-state’ for India. One of the book’s authors is Yogendra Yadav, an academician-turned-psephologist-turned-politician.
An example of subnationalism proudly elucidated in the article, is of how a demand for a separate flag for Karnataka was raised by the Congress in 2017, just before elections there. The then chief minister, Siddaramaiah of the Congress, is named in the opening paragraph as an active backer of this creed.
From it, we learn that subnationalism is necessary to accommodate multiple linguistic and cultural identities, which presently face the threat of being swamped by ‘ethno-cultural majorities’ and ‘hyper-nationalism’.
We also learn that subnationalism somehow “promotes positive social outcomes” and “is positively linked to social development." For legitimacy, the article liberally quotes Prerna Singh, an academician of Indian origin at Brown University, in America.
Singh’s contribution to such theorising is the kernel of subnationalism: “Using multiple research methods, she demonstrates that greater the level of subnational solidarity, higher will be the State’s commitment to social welfare”.
Translation: the more diverse and separate a provincial identity, with respect to a national identity, the more a state will be compelled to distribute welfare equitably, without privileging one sociocultural identity over others.
What does that mean in small words? It means that the more a minority community can be made to seem culturally, ethnically, or linguistically different from a majority, in a visceral way, the more inclined a state would be to appease it with welfare schemes.
There’s a term for this theory in India – vote bank politics – and quite a few generations of Indians have grown old suffering the ravages of its application. So, no matter how fancy or novel the phraseology, ‘subnationalism’ is not new to us. It is just that we were temporarily thrown off the scent by its fresh repackaging, in fresh, unintelligible terms, for a fresh generation.
Nonetheless, now that we know where Rahul Gandhi is headed with his ‘union-not-a-nation’ line, it helps us greatly in understanding the root causes of political discord. So, pointing out to Gandhi that the Indian constitution does contain the word nation is a useless counter-argument, because that is not what he is on about.
Secondly, these investigations offer revealing insights on why Gandhi chose to meet Jeremy Corbyn during his recent London trip. This former head of the British Labour Party once tweeted in August 2019 that the situation in Kashmir was deeply disturbing because of the human rights violations taking place there. Corbyn didn’t name India in that tweet, but two months later, he got more brazen by meeting members of the Congress Party’s diaspora wing to once again castigate the situation in Kashmir.
As Swarajya explained in December 2019 with copious data, after Corbyn and his party lost the British general elections, such posturing was necessitated by the party’s utter dependency on the British Muslim vote. But at that time, subnationalism wasn’t yet the flavour of the month it is now, so this writer failed to connect all the dots.
The point is that there is an international aspect to subnationalism, with adherents and votaries in many democracies, which is now coalescing into both policy, and alliances between political parties growing across sovereign boundaries.
We can see how chummy the Congress is, for example, with the Labour party, or with the American Democratic Party. Eric Garcetti, the latter’s nominee as ambassador to India, openly said in December 2021, that “There are groups that are actively fighting for human rights of people on the ground in India that will get direct engagement from me”. Garcetti’s appointment as ambassador remains to be confirmed, six months after its announcement.
It also explains why three opposition members of parliament participated in the London event along with Gandhi: Sitaram Yechuri of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), Mahua Moitra of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), and Manoj Kumar Jha of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).
All four parties represent the last word on minority appeasement and vote bank politics in India, and although they are not yet firm allies on the same electoral platform, their foes are roughly the same: Hindu, Hindutva. So, we can certainly expect that subnationalism would be one plank upon which common electoral interests converge.
After all, one of the ‘best practices’ of subnationalism is the creation of new identities by the creation of new griefs. Theoretically, the possibilities are endless. You could have sub-sects of sub-castes whipped into a frenzy of dire alarm, with specific, tailored victimhood narratives for numerous geographies, which the aggregator capitalises upon with good timing, by waving the wail into a collective crescendo come voting day.
But that’s not all. There’s also a sub-theory called subnational diplomacy, which seeks to ‘pluralise and decentralise India’s foreign policy’. This is where it gets scary.
Two academicians named Purnendra Jain and Tridivesh Singh Maini wrote a paper in 2017, in the Japanese Journal of Political Science, titled, ‘India’s Subnational Governments Foray into the International Arena’. According to them, Indian foreign policy is not the sole preserve of its central government, because the provinces too have a stake in it.
Then, like a line out of a Mario Puzo novel, they blithely declare that the centre needs to listen to the provinces, because foreign investment wouldn’t get out of the bank without the provinces’ cooperation. Evidently, in certain circles, foreign policy must first supplicate to a domestic ‘offer you can’t refuse’, if it is to work.
And almost gleefully, the paper concludes that subnational diplomacy will go a long way in breaking down sovereign borders (Is this what Eric Garcetti was alluding to when he made his atrocious statement, about wishing to interfere in the internal affairs of India?). But there is a caveat – while the authors reveal that this process did receive encouragement under the Manmohan Singh government, they fear that it could get reversed in the Modi era, as regional parties succumb to the BJP juggernaut.
To think that someone would advocate the devolution of foreign policy from the centre to the provinces, may sound like a lunatic notion, prima facie. But, in fact, this is nothing new. If the Communist International’s (Comintern) stock aim in the mid-twentieth century was ‘nations without borders’, then its twenty-first century neo-Marxist equivalent is ‘provinces with sovereign borders’. Communism has gone local.
So, we see that by theory, definition, description, utility, application, practice, and objectives, Rahul Gandhi’s subnationalism is rank Marxist, or at best, neo-Marxist thinking, which seeks to foster the same, trite, identity politics-based oppressor-oppressed-saviour victimhood triangle.
What sort of unbridled ideological delinquency is this, and where will it end? Believe it or not, the article referred to at the start of this piece has an answer: it repeatedly says that subnationalism should not be viewed as a threat, as long as it is not secessionist.
And there we have it: those theorists advocating an inculcation of divisive identities know full well, that such efforts also run the risk of spinning out of control. They know, even if they will not admit, that attempts to cleave society along cultural traits can, and often do, transmogrify into intractable, unmanageable, violent, separatism.
They know the dangers, and yet, they persist in Fu Manchu levels of fiendishness, simply because an ideology they subscribe to teaches that this is the right path to take.
Thus, in conclusion, we see why a tool as subversive and minacious as subnationalism is so attractive to the likes of Rahul Gandhi, even if it is anything but a valid political theory:
One, a growing body of scholarship (if we can call it that) provides scriptural sanction to political intent. Using abstruse, specious jargon and fustian, chimerical words (like, consociational), subnationalism can then be technically characterised as a democratic process.
Two, it offers a plan, and necessary ‘ideological’ depth, for narrative-building. The poor victims, the cruel persecutors, and the guardian angels riding in for the rescue, can all be identified, packaged, and labelled with meticulous care.
Three, linking subnationalism to improving welfare schemes offers a benign air, and aids in countering accusations of motive; it can be portrayed, or spun, as a noble effort. So, anyone contesting, or criticising this theory, can be easily tarred as a bigoted killjoy who doesn’t have the interests of the indigent at heart.
Four, creating fractious, antagonistic identities is an answer to the attractive, supra-caste, amalgamating tendencies of Hindutva, with patent, lucrative, electoral benefits – especially at a time when identities fashioned in the last century are being discarded at a rapid pace.
And, five, it obviates the need to invoke Marxian terms like class-wars or dialectical materialism, or quote postmodernist thinkers like Derrida and Foucault. Importantly, this frees users from the stigma of such tropes, motifs and imagery which still persist strongly in many circles.
The problem, however, is the terrible social cost our nation would once again have to pay, for this new political experiment.
But now that we finally know what subnationalism actually is, it is also possible that Rahul Gandhi and his ilk can be counselled publicly in no uncertain terms, that this old road they have chosen to tread anew, is both an insidious and an invidious venture. Nothing good will come of it.
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