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Opposition parties like the Congress could benefit politically by using the Preamble front and centre in their political messaging Image Credit: Shutterstock

Jana Gana Mana, the Indian national anthem, started playing in a cinema hall in Delhi. Everyone stood up in attention. Towards the end of the anthem it turned out to be an ad for a telecom company. The audience felt cheated, and sat down to watch a movie that had men fighting for the nation.

Nationalism is a powerful cultural force that can be used to sell an idea, organisation or product to the masses. The Lokpal movement, Modi’s transformation from a Gujarati leader to a national one, and the mainstreaming of Hindu nationalism have all used flag-waving Indian nationalism.

Nehru and Indira sold secularism to the masses using nationalism — the idea of India, they said, was unity in diversity.

There was a time when the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsewak Singh realised they could redefine Indian nationalism. Today they insist that Indian nationalism and Hindu nationalism are the same.

The BJP today has owned Indian nationalism, one of the many reasons for its stupendous success. If any opposition force of any kind has to succeed in today’s India, it won’t be without invoking nationalism and using nationalist symbols.

One tricolor, many shades

The question is: how does one reclaim nationalism from the BJP?

The answer lies in understanding that nationalism comes in many shades. There is military nationalism, secular nationalism, majoritarian nationalism, federalist nationalism, a centralising nationalism, anti-colonial nationalism (return the Kohinoor), language nationalism and so on.

When we discuss these ideas in our political discourse, we often ignore the nationalism part.

There are competing visions of nationalism espoused by Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore and Ambedkar — all of which have their own appeal in society.

There is also a people’s nationalism — espoused most memorably by a student leader named Kanhaiya Kumar (who has since lost his way, but never mind.) Charged with sedition and accused of using the word “azaadi” or freedom in a separatist sense, Kumar responded by saying he was demanding azadi for the masses from such ills as poverty, feudalism, patriarchy and communalism.

There’s a usual suspect in economic nationalism. The arguments for protectionism and economic “self-sufficiency” are framed in nationalist terms across the world. Indira Gandhi used this narrative to her political advantage in the ‘70s. Today Narendra Modi has been using them.

Economists Raghuram Rajan and Rohit Lamba have recently argued for a GDP growth rate nationalism — making an annual growth rate of 8% something of a national mission, charging up every individual with a patriotic duty to work towards it.

Nationalism from a book

There is another kind of nationalism that has shown a surprising new popularity lately: Constitutional nationalism.

In 2020, when the government made changes to India’s citizenship laws that many thought were discriminatory, protesters on their own started using the iconic image of the Preamble as a way of asserting their claim to India.

This was a moment when those often accused of being “antinational” were able to use a nationalist symbol to stake their claim on the nation. The Preamble defines India in terms that work against majoritarian nationalism. It defines India as a land of justice, equality, liberty and individual dignity.

In just 85 words, the Preamble defines not just what the Constitution is about but also what the idea of independent India is about.

The use of the Preamble as a powerful symbol to reclaim nationalism has come from the people, not from politicians. The citizenship protests may have died down but the Preamble’s new life continues to be a source of inspiration.

As interreligious issues vitiated the atmosphere in Karnataka recently, a mosque in Shivamogga district started a reading of the Preamble after the Friday prayers. Cricketer Irfan Khan, responding to criticism by a fellow cricketer, recently posted an image of the Preamble, asking people to “read and re-read it”. The tweet garnered over 28,000 retweets and 146,000 likes.

Capitalising on the Preamble

Given this newfound power of the preamble, it is a no-brainer that opposition parties should use it in a big way to reclaim nationalism.

Until the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests were taking place, there was some enthusiasm about the Preamble, but it has since then fizzled out. This is a mistake. Opposition parties like the Congress could benefit politically by using the Preamble front and centre in their political messaging.

During the anti-CAA protests, the Congress party’s top leadership sat and read aloud the Preamble at Mahatma Gandhi’s shrine in Rajghat. The governments of Kerala and Maharashtra made Preamble-reading compulsory in schools. Steps like these are barely enough to experience the full power of the Preamble in re-defining Indian nationalism as a force against majoritarian extremism.

Opposition parties could put up giant posters of the Preamble everywhere — in and outside their offices, in their meetings and rallies, in every room of every state government office in opposition-ruled states. They should be giving speeches on the Preamble, dwelling on every word.

They should be holding Preamble sabhas or town-hall meetings. They could commission Preamble-themed parks in cities or put up stone sculptures of the preamble on roundabouts. They could start Preamble fellowships for young people to volunteer time for social welfare. They could make Constitution Day and other national occasions a time to celebrate the Preamble.

Most importantly, they could commission a ‘saral’ or simple Hindi translation of the Preamble to take those ideas to the masses, ingrain them in their heads as being part and parcel of Indian nationalism. Paste them on every door.

There are few things more beautiful than the Preamble. Every word is a chapter of our national life:

WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens:

JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

EQUALITY of status and of opportunity;

and to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation;