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Mainstream, VOL LX No 9, 10 New Delhi, February 19, February 26, 2022 [Special Double number]

Who are We? A ‘Union of States’ or a ‘Nation’? Contested Terms of Discourse on Idea of India | Karli Srinivasulu

Thursday 17 February 2022, by Karli Srinivasulu


Who are We? and what kind of a nation are we? It is a question that often crops up in the history of a country in response to new challenges and remains at the centre of political discourse often subtly and sometimes openly, raised be it by Samuel Huntington [1] or Rahul Gandhi in the present instance.

Rahul Gandhi’s speech in the Lok Sabha during the debate on the motion of thanks on the President’s address has gained national attention. The speech was fairly complex and was apparently meant to raise a serious discussion on a series of issues ranging from the widening gap between the rich and the poor that are said to constitute “two Indias”, massive loss of employment and unparalleled rise in the rate of unemployment caused by the crisis in the Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) sector which is a major source of employment resulting from the blows of Demonetization and of flawed GST regime only to be further exacerbated by the COVID-19 induced economic slowddown, the pushing of “23 crore people back into poverty”, the isolation of India in its neighbourhood and weakening of its status in the comity of nations that have been bothering thinking people across the social, intellectual and political spectrum.

What has attracted wider attention and in fact sharpened or rather polarized political opinion either in favour of or against was Rahul Gandhi’s highlighting of the constitutional idea of India as “a union of states and not as a nation” which we will focus our attention on in this analysis.

Charging the BJP of bringing back the idea of ‘Shahenshah’, a “king of India” that was “smashed in 1947” he highlighted the diversity of India evident in the fact of its “different languages and cultures” which as he stated required “a partnership, not a kingdom” based on the recognition of the states as equal partners in the governance of a diverse country such as India through cooperative federalism. He further argued that as against increasingly noted adversarial position towards the states in the present dispensation as evident in the use of the instrumentalities of the Indian state against the opposition leaders and dissenting voices what is needed is openness for “conversation and negotiation” in governance by the centre vis-à-vis the states, civil society and citizenry.

It is no exaggeration that this speech has attracted a remarkably huge response sharply polarised either in favour of or critical of the idea of India being a “Union of states” rather than being a “nation.” What is unfortunate is that this comment is seen and treated more as a polemical point aimed at cornering the ruling BJP in the process assuming a lot and explicating little. It would be instructive to examine the issue by bringing forth the underlying assumptions and highlighting the conceptual and analytical potential of the above statement in a theoretical perspective which this article aims at attempting.

‘Either-or’ terms 

‘Either-or’ terms in which the issue has been sought to be framed is deeply problematic and raises serious questions. Central to this is: can a state sustain, survive and be stable as a political entity without there being a collective imagination and emotional investment in it [2]. To be more specific, can India be strong and stable without being imagined as a nation? It is true that in legal-constitutional terms Indian federation has been characterized as a union of states and this position would go to support the autonomy of the states, division of powers between the centre and states and constitutional guarantees for decentralization of power with the judiciary acting as the arbiter and protector of the constitution.

But if we look at our federal journey, we would not lose sight of the fact that centre-state relations have not been all that cozy and have become much debated especially in the post-Emergency period.

In the early decades of Independence when the Congress party was in power both at the centre and also in the states, centre-state relations understandably were not found to be problematic. It is only since 1967 when a number of states came under non-Congress rule and much more significantly in the post-Emergency period that Centre-state relations and state autonomy have become contentious issues demanding resolution in accordance with the constitutional spirit and popular mandates.

It was only during the tenures of the National Front and United Front coalitional governments in which regional parties became critical players we saw some sensitivity to state autonomy and attempts at the democratic resolution of the centre-state relations being made. The Congress dominated UPA and the BJP led NDA-I were cautious in their treatment of the states as they were dependent on the support of a large number of state level parties.

With the BJP emerging as the single largest party in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and forming government at the centre on its own in spite of formally retaining the NDA format we see with a sense of déjà vu a strong semblance of a return to the old sense of one party dominance of course with remarkable differences in terms of ideology, persona and purpose. The resultant tensions and emergent or prospective challenges have been of different kind as the present dynamics of federal politics have little resemblance to that of Congress dominated polity of early years of post-Independent India.

It is to this apparent reality of centralization and erosion in the center-state relations that Rahul Gandhi was alluding to when he reminded the parliament of the constitutional figuring of India as a Union of states. [3]

But Rahul Gandhi’s presentation though aspectually persuasive eludes a series of serious questions that ought to be asked and attempted without which diagnosis of the problem remains incomplete and therefore the possibility of finding proper answers elusive.

Logic of Centralisation 

Is the logic of centralization a merely or largely political phenomenon or structurally rooted? Any attempt to address this must take cognizance of the deeper processes of change in the political economy of India that are both a continuation of and also expansion over the earlier phases. The political economy of development of India has been driven by the concentration of wealth with some restraint in the earlier years and rapid and expansive since the 1970s and what we have been witnessing ever since the launching of neo-liberal policy reforms is the acme of centralization of economic power.

What could be noticed in the present political dispensation is unparalleled in terms of concentration of economic power leading to class polarization of very perilous portents which Rahul Gandhi highlighted when he talked about ‘two Indias’. This polarization is facilitated and fastened by the policy interventions such as De-monitisation and GST: the result being acceleration of the process of primitive accumulation by dispossession [4] of the petty producers, small traders and farmers of their possessions and entitlements and unhealthy growth of the corporate capital as a clear instance of economic concentration.

The fact of political centralization has to be understood in relation to the structural logic of economic concentration which would not be possible to pursue smoothly without the centralized power. Are the Opposition parties and leaders including Rahul adept at this reality? If so, are they politically willing to address it or would they seek refuse in the populist policies to assuage the economic and social marginalization of the large sections of working people like most of the regional regimes prefer to do.

The question is how far the Congress and the Opposition would go in addressing the above structural concerns or would they go according to their convenience and in a piecemeal way.

Visions of India as a Nation

The posing of the constitutional status of India either of being a Union of states or a nation has not only apparently narrowed the choice but in my view is articulated in a mechanical one-sided way. It would be necessary to note that India through its long anti-colonial history has seen various streams of social, cultural and political articulations that have had a crucial and critical role in shaping the imagination and defining the idea of India, that is what India aspired to be and in fact in large part came to become.

It is unfortunate that Indian politics has largely come to be seen both theoretically and practically through the prism of electoral politics. The electoral usurpation of the political space is not only a clear vindication of the pursuit of power as the predominant concern by political parties but also their eschewing of the social and cultural for power. This is not just confined to political parties (To this the BJP with its strong ideological accent on Hindutva makes a difference. More on this later). Even scholarly research in political science (along with the media) without exaggeration has become enchanted with electoral bases, strategies, gains and losses almost to the exclusion of related complex issues of ideas, ideologies, institutions, policies that deserve attention for a rich understanding of politics.

It is in this context we need to bring focus back onto the deeper ideological transformation underlying the electoral empirics of Indian politics. It pertains to the serious ideological and political contestations involving contrastive and conflicting visions of India as a nation, sharpened and polarized by the rise of Hindutva into a position of politico-ideological hegemony. Without an active sense of these ideological dynamics, India would be considered in legal terms as a union of states, Indian politics would be treated in terms of electoral arithmetic of winning and losing and political conflicts would become clash of persona and their egos. Further the hegemonic shift brought about by the BJP would require us to rethink and reconceptualise the centralization of power under its dispensation in keeping with the changed terms of reference.

The underlying contrastive ideas of India can be categorised into three strands: the Congress brand of secular nationalism, Hindutva and the anti-caste nationalism. This delineation of the ideological complex of nationalist imagination it must be cautioned does not preclude the actuality of overlapping and interrelationship nor does it preempt the possibility of newer variations as Indian nationalism promises to be quite an innovative paradigm of exchange and hybridity.


The ascendancy of Hindutva has been a long-drawn, multi-dimensional process and has encompassed multiple platforms that include street, civil society and state institutions. Going beyond electoral politics and formal institutional structures of power its conspicuous presence in street seen as an intense field, especially in violent — physical and verbal — manifestation, is a matter of concern and alarmingly evocative of the dark past one shudders to reminisce. The absence of any organized and effective resistance to street violence is a clear vindication of the inadequacy and limitation of the so-called secular political parties — national or regional - to meet the growing challenge of politics of orchestrated street violence. It is remarkable that in the context of increasingly evident incapacity and even alleged complicity of the formal political and legal structures it is the ordinary citizens on their own, based on their own meager resources could be seen putting up an intense popular and deeply political resistance. This has been evident in the Shaheen bagh protest, student movements, farmers’ agitation against the farm laws, etc. The ideological voice, social depth and political direction of these articulations is such that the powers-that-be rattled by their expanse and potentiality could not resist the temptation to express the impatience and disdain for civil society by formally calling it the “fourth frontier of war.” This is a vindication of the criticality and potentiality of civil and subaltern social spheres to be sources of hope and optimism and still being potential mainstays for the protection of democracy in India.

The incapacity of the Congress to resist the Hindutva challenge is not merely a result of its electoral and organizational decline, as often perceived and emphasized; in reality it is a reflection of the deep crisis in the dominant secular nationalism it claims to be the upholder of. The Congress nationalism, claiming its inheritance to freedom movement legacy, seems to have exhausted its power of appeal in the face of the challenges from different sides and especially from the Hindutva and lacks in inspiration and finds it difficult to ignite the imagination of the articulate, upwardly mobile and outward looking classes that hope, aspire and seek opportunities in real or imagined possibilities opened up in/ by the neo-liberal globalising India.

The crisis in the Congress nationalism is not accidental but is a result of internal inadequacies in its grand narrative. Like all nationalisms, the Congress nationalism is anchored onto the past. [5] This is contrary to the fact that the idea of nation is recent and modern. To ground itself in history nationalist imaginations make an attempt to (re)construt centuries of past of course by positing the constructed self-images of the present on the past. With his deep historical scholarship Pandit Nehru knew well that search for nation in the past — Indian or otherwise - was ahistorical and deeply problematic. Despite the mythicality of such a construct quite paradoxically Nehru dons the role of an articulate exponent of this anachronistic position. The flourish of this myth can be seen in Nehru’s Discovery of India when he seeks to trace the sense of national feeling in the “tremendous impress of oneness” in India despite its outward diversity and plurality and states “and yet have been throughout these ages distinctively Indian, with the same national heritage and same set of moral and mental qualities” only to exuberantlyclaim that “the unity of India was no longer merely an intellectual conception for me; it was an emotional experience which overpowered me” [6]

In contrast, Gandhi was reflective and realistic when he emphasised what conscious, collective and tremendous an effort was needed to make India that is “so vast and (with) the races so varied” into a nation when he states his 1941 “Constructive Programme”: “As one discovers this for oneself, one realizes how difficult it is to make good our claim to be one nation, unless every unit has a living consciousness of being one with every other.” [7]

The major lacuna in this project was the underplaying of the historical faultlines in Indian society. The foundational aspect of it has been the caste as a division of society based on janma (birth) and justified on the basis of karma (fate). The reluctance rather failure to address caste question after independence as part of the nation and state building and political economy of developmental process shaped as integral part of the emergent India — with the caste in its traditional pre-capitalist form co-existing with its modern capitalist avatar.

The crisis in Indian nationalism seen against the above backdrop prepared the ground for the rise and consolidation of Hindutva nationalism. In contrast to the secular nationalist frame of spatial, geographical accent in the conceptualization of nation the Hindutva plays on the idea of cultural territoriality characterised on religious markers. The Savarkarite position which makes a distinction between Pitrubhoomi (Fatherland) and Punyabhooomi (Holy land) disqualifies the followers of the so-called Abrahmic religions, that is of Islam and Christianity, who have their holy places outside India to full nationality and citizenship. With this conceptual shift Hindutva lays the ideological basis for its notion of Hindu rastra and resultant politics of exclusion and denial.

The social base of the Hindutva politics has to be appreciated against the backdrop of the neo-middle class that emerged and matured in the post-Emergency period with hardly any or weak emotional connect with the nationalist movement.

If the Congress’ claim of being an inheritor of nationalist legacy is distant and remote offering hardly any emotional capital to this class then its experience and memory of the Emergency and the resultant slur on Congress’ claim to being an upholder of constitutional values and democracy made it a suspect. The dynastic control and image of being deficient on democratic credentials caused trust deficit for the Congress beyond the electoral performances therefore paved the way for vacuity in its politics.

The opening of Indian economy and its exposure to neo-liberal globalization has had contradictory consequences. On the one hand it deprived large sections of working people of their livelihood chances and rendered vast majority of petty producers insecure and unstable. On the other, it curiously created the base for aggressive consumerist modernity. Concomitant to consumerism is the cultural up-rootedness and emotional alienation of the beneficiaries of consumerist surge. Thus material displacement/ dispossession of vast population and emotional deprivation of the well-to-do and middle classes formed two sides of the neo-liberal reality of India that curiously created a potential base for the Hindutva growth.

The Hindutva through its neo-liberal corporatism promised to propel the furthering of consumerist modernity through integration with global finance capital on the one hand and could with its religious-cultural politics address the identity crisis especially in the uprooted NRIs and assurance and solace to the vast majority of upwardly mobile and aspirational middle class suffering from emotional vacuity.

What is critical to be noted is that both the dominant secular and Hindutva nationalist projects are constructed on a weak historical basis. That is both are premised on a sense of history that is largely mythical. They posit the sense of nationalism onto India’s past. In their own fashion they are ideologically silent on caste but elaborately attentive to the micro-dynamics of caste in the management of electoral politics. A-historical view of nation and absence of critical social agenda with anti-caste primacy in fact form the Achilles heel of both these projects.

Anti- Caste Vision 

In contrast to these projects of nationalism and their idea of India as a nation, in the anti-caste tradition from Phule to Ambedkar [8] we find a radically different vision premised on the following:

1. No nation can be built on the basis of caste. The proximate of nation is possible only on the basis of the anti-caste project.

2. With the constitution, as Dr BR Ambedkar argued in his last speech to the Constituent Assembly, India has entered into a ‘life of contradictions’ - the contradiction being between formal equality promised in the constitution and substantive social and economic inequality inherited, sustained and reproduced on the foundation of the caste system. The democratic and stable future of India as a nation, Ambedkar emphasized, lies in the resolution of this contradiction through the annihilation of caste and thus laying the foundation for a society based on equality and justice.

The challenges of two Indias, the overt centralization of economic and political power and the exclusivist view of Indian society are all related to the weak social imaginary of the dominant nationalisms which cannot and do not address the fundamental challenge of caste being the ontological basis of divisiveness, denial, exclusion and conflict.

It is time that the intellectuals of different ideological persuasions — liberal, left, Dalit — rise up to the Hindutva challenge and discursively engage with forms, expanse and logic and implications of differential notions of India as a nation by deeply engaging with everyday politics of commonsense, compromise and conflict of course going beyond the calculus of electoral politics that has become our national obsession and preoccupation.

(Author: Karli Srinivasulu is Senior Fellow, ICSSR; Professor (Retd) Department of Political Science, Osmania University, Hyderabad, Telangana)

[1Huntington Samuel P (2005), Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, Simon & Schuster.

[2For conceptualisation of nation as an imagined community, see, Anderson, Benedict (2006), Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, Verso.

[3Cf. Sahu, SN (2022), ‘Rahul echoed Gandhi and Ambedkar When he said India is a ’Union of States’, The Wire, February 6.

[4Harvey, David (2004), ‘The ’new’ imperialism: accumulation by dispossession’, Socialist Register (40) Pp. 63-87.

[5For a detailed discussion, see, Srinivasulu, K (2016), ‘Discourses on Nationalism and Question of Secular state’, Zaheer Ali (ed), Secularism under Seige, Akaar, Delhi.

[6Nehru, Jawaharlal (2008), Discovery of India, Penguin. Delhi. Pp. 38-40.

[7Quoted in Sahu (2022)

[8For an elaboration of Ambedkar’s anti-caste vision of India as a nation, see, Srinivasulu, K (2021), ‘Dr Ambedkar and Annihilation of Caste’, in S Simhadri and A Ramagoud (Eds), The Routledge Handbook of the Other Backward Classes in India: Thought, Movements and Development, Routledge, London.

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