The problem of identities
In a debate on Ideas of India, Prof. Varshney devotes significant effort in painting his idea of India replete with multiple identities and tries to distinguish it from Harsh and Rajiv’s idea. Unfortunately, the assumption central to his thesis and therefore his argument can be rejected simply by stating this:
“Strict rule of law doesn’t mean giving up identities. There is a big difference between the state staying out of issues of identities, applying same rules to everyone and the state assuming that there is only one identity.”
However, in the interest of debate, I will try to address the other issues he raised.
Prof. Varshney makes a great show of separating economic arguments from political arguments. But, to what end? Has he forgotten Mr. Clinton’s campaign cry, “The economy, stupid”? Or does he forget that economy takes center stage in Politics (especially in a decidedly socialist state), just behind security and rule of law? He is lazy in explaining what he meant by a “political argument” and the scope of such an argument leaving us to assume that political arguments for him are limited to arguments about “Identity” and exclude all the aforementioned functions of the state.
Prof. Varshney sets out such an argument against Modi based on the vulgarity he encounters online. I have heard arguments earlier that the online world isn’t representative of the real India. So, how does that make Modi a president of “a mountain of crudeness and vulgarity”? Even if it (online world) were a mirror, shouldn’t he apply the popular thesis of ‘a vocal minority’ and refrain from making such a broad generalization? However, unless Prof. Varshney can point out uncouth behaviour or incitement to such behaviour by Narendra Modi himself, these points are moot.
As an aside, perhaps Prof. Varshney is too used to the decorum of a classroom, but if he spent enough time on the interwebs he would know that flame wars, baiting and trolling are just par for the course. The reason he might have attracted the ire of so many Modi-loyalists might have been because he wrote something against Modi. Perhaps, he should try getting into a chat room discussing an India-Pakistan cricket match, where he can criticize popular players on either side and document the reactions. As Mr. Dhume pointed out – “it (crudeness) is a small price to pay for democratization of discourse”. Quite naturally, closer an issue is to one’s identity, the shriller opinions surrounding it become with lesser room for civility.
When Prof. Varshney talks about the existence of hyphenated identities in the American society, does he not see the thread that binds Arab-Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and many others? They are all Americans first, and in spite of preceding the nationality in name, one’s ethnicity is actually subservient to nationality (as Prof. Obama, Gov. Jindal and Sen. Rubio illustrate). Contrary to his implied claim, neither the US constitution, nor the Bill of Rights recognize the term “minorities” or hyphenated identities. It is the society that allows and embraces these different identities. Similarly, the “affirmative action” isn’t mandated by the state, but rather is a voluntary social undertaking.
Herein lies the biggest source of muddling in Prof. Varshney’s argument and his understanding of the position Narendra Modi has been advocating. In removing the state entirely from issues of identity, the state gives up its power to arbitrate on issues of identity to concentrate on the more basic functions – security, rule of law and economy, hopefully with greater efficiency. At the same time, it hands over the responsibility on issues such as identity to a social conscience. It is then up to the intellectuals such as Prof. Varshney himself, to debate these ideas and guide the conscience, not on the back of the state’s power (which can always be abused), but on the power and soundness of their ideas.
Finally, when he complains that the ingredients become an undifferentiated whole in the melting pot – Prof. Varshney is confessing his limitation. Just as a good chef knows what ingredients go into and what aspect of the taste they contribute to the pot, a good analyst should be nuanced enough to understand the underlying differences in identities. To say that identities are lost unless they are separated as in a salad is a specious argument that would deny the chance for a nation to become better than the sum of its parts.