Liberalism and nationalism have a common heritage in the 18th and 19th century when the ideas of Enlightenment found expression in the politics of Europe and later in India. Both ideas arose as a reaction to absolutism and complemented each other’s rise. In Europe, Guiseppe Garibaldi fought many wars not only to unify his homeland Italy, but also to help achieve the national aspirations of other South American and European nations. In India the early nationalism of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and the Indian National Congress was founded on liberal ideas about equality before the law and the separation of powers.
The twentieth century saw the two ideas part ways. Internationally, the more virulent forms of nationalism blended with socialism and communism to unleash some of the worst tragedies of human history. Liberalism and democracy became the preserve of a few countries, many of whom managed to deliver prosperity to their citizens.
Taken to their extremes liberalism and nationalism are antithetical even inimical ideologies. There are however some shared values and synergies which have seen liberals in India and abroad embrace nationalistic rhetoric and policies to achieve their goals.
It is interesting however that liberals do not agree about what this common ground is. Some propose that ethno-cultural nations are the only stable unit of political organisation. While others believe in the idea of civic nationalism or the principle of voluntary association of citizens. You might find this confusing, contradictory or even
hypocritical, but this only highlights the pragmatism of the liberal attitude.
In India, although we have a liberal democracy, the main political actors today all lay claim to nationalism. The early nationalism of the freedom movement was co-opted by Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party. Nationalism came to mean a paternal state and blended perfectly with Mrs Gandhi’s version of socialism. Nationalism, in this new sense, was used to justify an over-stretched state and became synonymous with a government that
could not perform its core functions.
The failure and consequent discrediting of this version of nationalism gave way to the ugly, aggressive and sectarian Hindu nationalism of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). This nationalism defined itself not by a core, but by what it was not. It played the politics of victimisation and hate.
Caught between the two, the liberal nationalist was lost. While economic liberalism was adopted by the Hindu right, the liberal and secular nationalist had the choice between associating with upholders of hateful views and associating with a camp whose economic views were anathema to him.
Liberals value rule of law, property rights, tolerance and subsidiarity as the bases for society to negotiate progress. Each of these has important implications and together they form the basis of human rights and a substantial part of the inspiration behind the Indian constitution. These values have an inevitable tension with the nationalist ideal.
The principle of subsidiarity holds some promise for the prospect of marrying liberalism to nationalism, but only at first glance. Garibaldi the Italian nationalist, wanted every “nation” to have its own government. Garibaldi’s nation, however, flies in the face of the concept of India. He defined it as a homogeneous community of people who would have a common identity and would be comfortable with self-rule.
Now, liberals are sympathetic to selfdetermination, but for individuals rather than ations. The principle of self-determination, when applied to geographical entities, has led to highly illiberal results. It often becomes an excuse for autocrats or terrorists to legitimise their actions toward securing a personal fief rather than a homeland for their people.
If Garibaldi’s definition of the nation is married to the liberal notion of subsidiarity, the resulting progeny will rebel against all the other principles of liberalism. It will not lead to rule of law. It will not protect minorities and will put paid to the virtue of tolerance. By increasing the number of national borders, it will result in greater protectionism and violations of individual rights.
Subsidiarity makes sense only in its pure form, with local governments having considerable autonomy, but constrained by a liberal national constitution.
The liberal vision is an Indian State that serves the citizens rather than being served by them. It is a secular state that treats all of the nation’s citizens without prejudice, respecting their individual rights and property. It is a vehicle that facilitates independent citizens to achieve their full potential. One simple way of envisioning the liberal state is to see it restricting itself to bare minimum functions. Such a state will also be less susceptible to capture by special interests.
The liberal vision of India is of a free nation of free citizens. This neither requires nor denies the need for a myth to build a cohesive basis for the nation. It does, however, looks beyond traditional group identities and recognises the diverse individuals who constitute India.