Oratory, nationalism and a debate gone populist

Oratory, nationalism and a debate gone populist

Trapped in Left-Right binaries, a promising debate on nationalism descended to populism at the Bangalore Litfest's Sunday finale. But in that cacophony of oratorial oneupmanship, a message struggled to emerge: That nationalism had to be inclusive, and a coloured reading would benefit none.

Firing the first salvo, Swarajya's editorial director R Jagannathan was categorical in his assertion: "Nationalism is not a dirty word, it is not in-born but needs to be inculcated. Nothing wrong in leaders of the state giving it a push."

Leftwing student leader Kanhaiya Kumar stood up to counter it in his trademark style: "If it is not in-born, then let us add 'Rashtravad drops' with polio drops to the child. Two drops for polio, two drops for nationalism."

Kumar was clear that a reductionist notion of nationalism rendered it populist. The government had promoted this agenda to hide its failures on multiple fronts. "We have a 5,000-year-old history. Our nationalism will not fall," he quipped.

He said it is not about ideologies. "Rescuing liberalism is key to both the Left and the Right. Entire social order and its value systems are being destroyed. We become liberal when it comes to women's rights, but turn conservative about gay rights."

For writer and columnist Sagarika Ghose, nationalism as an ideology was never benevolent.

She explained, "Two world wars were fought because of nationalism, leading to the rise of fascists. Now, there is a wave of nationalism worldwide, leading to the rise of the Far Right."

Jagannathan blamed liberals for this virulent backlash. Dubbing it a 'triumph of the discontented,' he saw it as a response to the liberals "deliberately excluding one kind of thinking from articulating its concerns.

The liberal Left has been artificially labelling. Now, the rightists are doing the same thing."

This was no time for nuanced debates. So, the minority-majority question was thrown right into the middle, triggering a slugfest. So, when one asked, "On Twitter, will they do a burkha-shaming like the saree-shaming," the retort was instant. "What about the campaigns against triple talaq, feminists taking on the Maulanas?" asked Ghose. "The caricaturing of liberals as pro-minorities is ridiculous."

Writer Manu Joseph rode the middle path, dubbing nationalism and liberalism as two sides of the same thing. They both hung onto the same form of activism. For him, activism was feudalism masked in moralism.

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