India's model of reflective patriotism

By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, January 26, 2010


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 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 landmarks when they are no longer pining to go abroad. Indian tourists are part of a larger phenomenon: All around the world, rising prosperity and rising patriotism go hand in hand. But what sort of patriotism is India's going to be?

In India's general vicinity, 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 tinge. Russian leaders, expressing a self-confidence born of oil wealth, indulge in 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 ways of expressing it.

Indian patriotism could develop in either direction. Saber-rattling is not exactly unheard of here, and nationalist sentiment has appeared in unexpected places. Newspaper headlines this week featured the national cricket league's recent refusal to draft 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 police officers who rape female 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.

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

This was, in other words, a patriotic audience: 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 intimidated by being there, no one was afraid to say anything out loud. 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. That sort of patriotism, if it can be encouraged and maintained, will keep Indian politics diverse and democratic over time -- even if its 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 would violently disagree with that assessment -- and that makes me more optimistic still.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company