The recent charade of a public debate by Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann on the river water dispute between Punjab and Haryana troubled me. Not merely because there was nothing public about this public debate. Not just because one more political party has succumbed to the tradition of double speak on Punjab-Haryana (or for that matter Karnataka-Tamil Nadu dispute). And not because the ruling ‘nationalist’ government at the centre has made no attempt whatsoever to resolve this potential challenge to national unity.

I was most troubled because there was no effective intervention by the nation-wide farmers movement, a movement that had brought farmers of Punjab and Haryana in a historic unity just two years ago. The river water dispute concerns the farmers. Leaders from both the states fight farcial legal and political battle in the name of the farmers. Why can’t farmer leaders from both the states sit together and come up with a resolution?

This failure is symptomatic of a deeper crisis of Indian nationalism. Our nationalism is increasingly outward facing, aggressive and jingoist. Insulting a Pakistani cricketer, our guest, is the hallmark of this nationalism. There is little reflection within, of the need for and ways to achieve national unity. We have all the time (though little understanding) in the world for vicarious pleasures of Israeli pulverization of Gaza, but no time to even understand the situation in Manipur.

This is not how Indian nationalism used to be. Our nationalism movement was uniquely positive in its orientation. It was anti colonial but not anti-White or even anti British. It did not pit Indian against its neighbours. After all, independent India was one of the first and ardent supporters of China’s entry into the UN. Our nationalism connected us to anti-colonial movements and struggles all over the world, Asia to Africa and Latin America.

While most of our nationalist heroes rejected the European notions of unity in uniformity, they were deeply concerned with national unity. Though suspicious of the ideology of nationalism, Tagore provides the Indian state with not just an anthem but also a philosophy of unity. Nehru’s Discovery of India was not just an intellectual project; it was a political project of searching for strands of unity.  Gandhiji’s crusade against untouchability and his promotion of Hindi stemmed from deep concern with uniting the country.

The concern of our national leaders with unity in diversity has been bifurcated. Some have prioritied “unity” at the cost of diversity. And others have focused only on diversity, forgetting the imperative of unity. We need to correct this imbalance and re-invent the state-nation called India.

What went wrong with this Indian model of nationalism? Answering this question is both an intellectual and political challenge of our times.

For me it is a personal intellectual challenge. This deterioration of the Indian model challenges the central argument of a book I co-authored in 2011 with two eminent scholars of comparative politics, Professors Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan. The title of the book, Crafting State-Nations, contained its central concept, that of a state-nation, rather than a nation-state. The main argument of the book can be summarized here. One of the key questions that students of politics face in 21st century is : how can democracies accommodate deep socio-cultural diversity within one state? The prevailing orthodoxy tells us that the way to resolve it is that every state must contain within itself one and not more than one culturally homogenous nation, that every state should be a nation, and that every nation should be a state. This is the dominant ‘nation-state’ model popularized by European political and intellectual power across the world. This is a political-institutional approach that tries to make the political boundaries of the state and the presumed cultural boundaries of the nation. Nation-states do this matching by privileging one socio-cultural identity with the help of soft assimilation, if possible and coercion or violence, if necessary. This is the history of modern nation-states in Europe.

In that book we had argued that this old European model has outlived its utility for most parts of the world. Many successful democratic states in the world such as India, Canada, Spain, Belgium did not conform to this model. They followed a different political-institutional approach. We called that approach the state-nation model. This alternative model respects and protects multiple sociocultural identities. It recognizes the legitimate public and even political expression of these differences. And it evolves legal and political mechanisms to accommodate competing or conflicting claims while fostering we-feeling for the state-wide political community. We argued that India was an exemplar of this model. Given the challenge of diversity all over the world, we argued that this state-nation model could hold lessons for the entire world.

It would seem that the developments in the last ten years would challenge this model. While we said the world needs to learn from this model, it collapsed in India itself. In the last ten years, India has witnessed a powerful swing towards the ‘nation-state’ model. Under the new ‘nationalist’ dispensation, unity is uniformity. Any diversity is frowned upon and suspected. How do we explain the sudden decline if not demise of the state-nation model?

I would not take an easy way out and argue that the state-nation model is an abstraction and that it not dependent on trajectory of any real life instance. If India has not followed that path, it shows a failure of India, not that of the model. India has paid the price for traveling further away from state-nation approach. But this would not be a good answer, because state-nation is not an abstract model, it must be tested in real life. In any case, India is not just another example for this model. India is more like an exemplar. So a challenge in India is a serious challenge to the model.

After thinking a lot about this issue, I have come to this conclusion that while the state nation model is still a good formulation and an ideal worth striving for in the present world, our book did not fully understand the mechanism that is needed to create and sustain a state-nation. The book emphaised more on ‘hard’ mechanisms like the constitution, the institutional design, formal state policies and the nature of party politics. But it did not pay sufficient attention to ‘soft’ mechanisms like identity, orientation, attitude and opinion. This is a realm of cultural politics. Over the last 75 years, we have grown complacent about our nationhood. The concern of our national leaders with unity in diversity has been bifurcated. Some have prioritied “unity” at the cost of diversity. And others have focused only on diversity, forgetting the imperative of unity. We need to correct this imbalance and re-invent the state-nation called India.