“The Struggle for India’s Soul: Nationalism and the Fate of Democracy” by Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor Shashi Tharoor

Since the 2014 election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Hindu nationalists have dominated India’s political arena. What does this mean for those, like Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, who have a different idea of India? Tharoor’s vision of India as a pluralistic, secular society contrasts vividly with the ethno-religious nationalist state promulgated by the BJP. The clash between these two competing visions of India is the topic for his latest book.

The first part of the book outlines nationalism in general, with Tharoor discussing theories of nationalism, nationalist issues in Europe, Africa and elsewhere in Asia, debates around citizenship and making a case for civic nationalism. Then he turns his gaze to India itself. Tharoor expounds on the idea of India being a “magnificent experiment in pulling a vast, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic population out of poverty and misery through democracy and pluralism”. He details the pan-Indian affinity that Ambedkar, Tagore, and Nehru held at the birth of Indian independence and opines how India’s sheer breadth of diversity should make nativism and Hindutva not just unappealing but unworkable.

Yet his calls for a positive sense of pluralistic nationalism are not shared by the BJP. In great detail he outlines how an early civic nationalism has deteriorated from a shared force of liberation against colonialism to a bitter and divisive Hindu movement. The BJP and Hindutva he argues, threaten the very idea of a multicultural India and has created an “ongoing struggle for Indians soul”. Tharoor then offers a line-by-line dismissal of the BJP’s brand of manufactured Hindu nationalism countering the anachronistic myths and fabrications it has disseminated to its supporters. From the Babri Masjid, attacks on Muslims and beef eaters, revoking the special status of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir and whipping up fervor at any perceived anti-nationalist activity, the book provides a comprehensive description of the political and social implications of Narendra Modi’s rule and attempts to recast Indian identity as a Hindu identity.

 

The Struggle for India’s Soul: Nationalism and the Fate of Democracy, Shashi Tharoor (Hurst, September 2021
The Struggle for India’s Soul: Nationalism and the Fate of Democracy, Shashi Tharoor (Hurst, September 2021)

This is not a new topic for Tharoor. Throughout the book there are repeated references to his discussions of such issues in greater detail in his previous books on Modi, Nehru, the British Empire, Hinduism and Indian history. At times all these references can make the book feel more a compendium of his previous writings. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for those new to his work, but readers familiar with Tharoor may find little fresh insight here. Moreover, while his arguments are meticulously referenced, at times the weight of the litany of citations, quotations and references bogs down the prose. Perhaps the weight of references, and his occasional unnecessary rhetorical flourishes are to be expected with a sesquipedalian like Tharoor.

Tharoor has nevertheless succeeded in providing a useful summary of the arguments surrounding contemporary Indian identity, why these debates have become so contentious and a dire warning of how much further things could deteriorate.


Maximillian Morch is a researcher and author, formerly based in Yangon and Kathmandu, focused on regional refugee and migratory issues.