Opinion | The meaning of the Flag War

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On Wednesday, the Congress Party leaders changed their social media display pictures to Jawaharlal Nehru holding the Indian flag. On the same day, the Enforcement Directorate sealed a part of the National Herald office, a newspaper that Nehru founded, on Delhi’s Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg. A week prior to these developments, in his Mann Ki Baat broadcast, prime minister Narendra Modi had suggested that all Indians should be changing their social media display profile to that of the tricolor until August 15.

If you listened to the broadcast, it is not hard to make out that what Modi is trying is to give his fellow Indians is a narrative of his India in the context of Independence Day. Mann Ki Baat generally is a report on the Better India.

In the July episode, among other things, Modi mentioned India’s recent sports achievements and then rounded off the broadcast by congratulating individual enterprises from various parts of India. These included men and women engaged in bee farming to doll making. The subtext of Mann Ki Baat is that under his watch India is moving toward prosperity and self-reliance and that everyone must partake in that project.

It is in this context that he said he would like to see the flag replace the DPs of all Indians, and that as we approach Aug 15, he would like to see the tricolor atop every house.

In The Art of The Novel, Milan Kundera, assuming God is a missing person, makes an intriguing point in passing: ‘The lost infinity of the outside world is replaced by the infinity of the soul. The great illusion of the irreplaceable uniqueness of the individual —one of Europe’s finest illusions —blossoms forth.’

Had the secular liberal Opposition— or the Nehruvian India that the Congress may be roughly equated with—been in power, their potential prime ministerial candidate, say, Rahul Gandhi or Shashi Tharoor, would have never said the Indian flag should be a sign, a testing ground for one’s patriotism. That if it were not made one’s DP, one could be interpreted to be less loving of one’s country than one who made it one’s DP. It’s a typical Modi master stroke that suddenly something as individualist as a DP on one’s phone is transformed into a battleground for group/tribal identity.

The Congress party has, for a change, cleverly replied with an alternative. They have changed their DP. The flag now comes with Nehru. The separation of the two is what the BJP has been trying to do.

But we must not stop at just understanding this part of the proxy war. In fact, it is more than a war of appropriation. It is about the political philosophy of the prime minister. It is easy to see in his exhortations regarding the flag a mere strategy to separate the nationalist from the not-so-nationalist and to totally appropriate that super symbol,the flag, from the liberals. In fact, it is more. It is Modi’s narrative of the New India.

Whether it is One Nation, One Election, One Nation, One Card, One Nation, One Language, Modi is advocating uniformity in the face of a teeming, uncontrollable diversity. The European uniqueness of the individual that Kundera talks about is exponentially available in India with its hundreds of languages and dialects and millions of gods and a spread of lands and cultures. Modi’s mission as Prime Minister, through most of his social and political reforms, has been to forge a group identity for the fissiparous Indian.

Indeed, the reason why he talks about movements, not just a need to get a thing done, is precisely because of this objective of forging the national character. So, the Swachh Bharat begins as a movement; everybody should be wielding a broom. Startups constitute an opportunity for all young Indians to participate in a new wave of enterprises. It is not just sports for a few, everyone should be exercising. To fight Covid, everyone should shine the cell torch.

Critics will find a fascist dimension in all these. To an extent, they will be right, too. But we must remember ‘fascio' means a bundle, a group. Modi is trying to include every Indian in everything he does. It is from this point of view that his development model is inclusive— with a vengeance perhaps.

The problem is that since Modi is making that very inclusive offer, and since he, as PM, represents the nation’s interests, anyone not accepting that offer becomes by default a potential seditionist. This may explain why we have so many people behind the bars for sedition-related charges. This is the rough political equivalent of the classic ‘either-or situation. Are you on the side of good or bad? If good, why don’t you have the DP replaced by the Indian flag— preferably with no Nehru in the vicinity? 

Kundera, in his work, explains that the ‘either-or encapsulates an inability to tolerate the essential relativity of things human, an inability to look squarely at the absence of the Supreme Judge’ (god). He says that is why the moral ambiguity of the novel is wise (the wisdom of uncertainty) and at the same time hard to understand. It tries to understand first; judgment may not follow.

If India is seen as fiction— profligate fiction— Kundera’s vision could be easily applied. The trouble is that we do have a kind of supreme judge in the prime minister. And his effort has been to wrest from the shape-shifting Indians, one form, one face, and one character so India becomes a comprehensible being to itself. It is this unifying effort that is at the heart of the flag war. It is well-intentioned. But then the path to hell is paved with good intentions.

(CP Surendran is an author and senior journalist. Views are personal.)

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