In the last two years, the Indian state has energetically promoted Brand India – on domestic soil and abroad, with Make in India as its centre-piece. On one hand, India as a brand contains immense promise: our unity despite our deep diversity, our commitment to democracy despite our history and geography, the spread of our culture despite two hundred years of subjugation, and finally, our ability to consistently produce some of the finest minds in the world.
But on the other hand, these are times when it appears that the state and its accomplices would like to drag us back in time, bereft of morality or character, into a time where virility, prejudice and brazenness are the only virtues that matter. For close to two years now, a virulent, intolerant concept of the state that seeks unquestioned loyalty to the state, and seeks to exert complete control over all spheres of public and private life has gained currency. This has been complemented by a sustained effort to alter the status quo of the past seven decades. Tireless attempts are underway to mould the impatient Indian who could not tolerate dynastic politics and corruption at large, into a sagacious one.
This model citizen that the state champions does not allow this deception to affect him. He calls for equivalence in every situation; he googles furiously to gather random data to compensate for his lack of analytical ability; he does not hesitate to air unverified facts; he is quick to abuse in public, and most importantly, he is steadfast in his faith in the new establishment. As he grows to be more accepting of the nuances of governance, trained as he is in issues ranging from the vague ‘influence of global factors’ to the emotionally-charged concepts of nationalism, he insists – louder than ever – that those asking questions of the government of the day have no locus standi. So when today, students, artists, or scientists protest, they are dismissed as anti-national, politically motivated, or irrelevant; as rotten apples that are distracting the rest from the propagation of Brand India on the global stage.
These traits have been on naked public display over the last week as the government deployed some of its senior-most commanders and its battalions of online warriors to tarnish the reputation of a group of students, their university, and more broadly, an entire eco-system that fostered debate, dissent and the pursuit of knowledge. To understand why this eco-system is important, it is important to appreciate the space for intellectualism. In this instance, it is the kind of intellectualism that helps one understand the distinction between the nation and the holders of state power – that one’s patriotism is not subject to their views on those holding the reins of state power. The right to dissent includes the right to challenge the state. A state that engages in political vendetta against its opponents is one thing, to use the state machinery to repeatedly assault basic rights of its citizens is a whole different ball-game.
It is unfortunate then that the USP of the Brand India that the state seeks to promote ultimately is reduced to our ability to juggle contradictions that strike at the heart of our democracy and culture. Serious reforms remain off the table, primarily due to the inability of those in power to build a political consensus. Provocation and grandstanding are the order of the day. The state is keen to demonstrate that India is a country of mouse-charmers, when in reality, it just wants us all to be cow-worshippers. The state would like to claim we can lead the world on innovation, but at the same time, strikes down swiftly on every minor instance of dissent. All of this is done of course, without allowing the contradictions take anything away from the swagger of an emerging global superpower.
The model citizen today is being asked by its state to don a mask in the service of his nation. A mask which can help him unabashedly hide a primitive interior within a plural exterior. As the state today goes about systematically destroying the country as we know it, it is simultaneously promoting Brand India, claiming virtues that it itself seeks to destroy. This is deception. How long before we are left bare in the eyes of the world, and more importantly, in our own eyes?