The Washington Post Column

The Indian Way of Patriotism

  • JAIPUR, India

The Amber Fort is the same, the pink buildings still glow in the early morning sun, the hawkers seem unchanged, and so do the elephants. But almost everything else is completely different. The last time I was in Jaipur, India’s capitalist revolution had not yet begun and most of the tourists were scruffy foreigners wearing backpacks. Now, they are just as likely to be well-coiffed, neatly dressed—and Indian. Across the fortress courtyard, elegant Delhi couples swathed in cashmere listen politely to their guides, while middle-class ladies in saris shuffle past their French and Japanese counterparts waving digital cameras.

Tourism is a luxury, one that is now available to millions of Indians thanks to two decades of growth, open markets, and global trade. It is also a sign of the times. People become curious about their own country when they are proud of it. They pay to hear the history of their own landmarks when they are no longer pining to go abroad. Indian tourists are thus part of a larger phenomenon: All around the world, rising prosperity and rising patriotism go hand in hand, and India is no exception. But what sort of patriotism is India’s going to be?

In India’s immediate neighborhood there are many models on offer. Chinese leaders, expressing a self-confidence born of export wealth, frequently convey their patriotism using nationalist rhetoric. They treat all internal criticism as treason, declare themselves impervious to world opinion, and demonstrate their power by snubbing President Obama at a climate summit. Russian patriotism, meanwhile, often takes on a neo-imperialist coloring. Russian leaders, expressing a self-confidence born of oil wealth, indulge in frequent saber-rattling and sometimes physical attacks on their neighbors. Indeed, the conjunction of Russia’s invasion of Georgia with the Beijing Olympics in the summer of 2008 was instructive: Two new models of national self-confidence were on display that week, along with two different ways of expressing it.

Indian patriotism could very well develop in either of those directions. Saber-rattling is not exactly unheard of here, and nationalist sentiment can appear in unexpected places. This week, Indian newspaper headlines featured the national cricket league’s recent refusal to draft any Pakistani players, a decision widely attributed to politics and prejudice. Resistance to internal criticism and even the repression of dissidents are not unknown here, either, especially in the poorer provinces. Indian editor Tarun Tejpal can list several such incidents off the top of his head: His energetic magazine, Tehelka, has reported on policemen who rape women travelers with impunity in one particularly violent region of the country as well as on local laws that violate rights guaranteed in the national constitution. This reporting, he says, has had no political impact whatsoever.

I heard Tejpal make these points down the road from the Amber Fort at this year’s Jaipur Literary Festival. From a large stage in a crowded room, he also declared that India’s new elite had been “bought off” with consumer goods and had slid into political complacency as a result; India’s new wealthy had ignored the continued suffering of the Indian poor, and in particular the ongoing violations of human rights. He made these points passionately, and many heads nodded. After he finished speaking, the elite, wealthy crowd rewarded him with hearty applause.

This was, in other words, a patriotic crowd: not nationalistic, not imperialist, not aggressive, but rather self-critical, focused on what is still wrong as well as what has gone right. I don’t want to make too much of a single session at a single festival, but it was clear that no one was remotely intimidated by being there, no one was afraid to say anything aloud. It’s that sort of patriotism, so hard to find in China and Russia, that gives India its lively novelists, its open public culture, its energetic film industry. It’s that sort of patriotism that, if it can be encouraged and maintained, will keep Indian politics diverse and democratic over time—even if the economy stops growing.

It’s also that kind of patriotism that makes tourists like me feel so energized by a brief visit. Like economic cycles, political trends come and go. At the moment, democracy is out, authoritarianism is in, and it is fashionable, in many parts of Asia, to claim that rapid economic growth requires censorship and central political control. India presents a real alternative to that model. I know that many Indians will violently disagree with that assessment, and that makes me more optimistic still.