Were you to ask an ordinary citizen what constitutes a greater threat to her safety, the prospect of a maverick border skirmish by a neighbouring country or the destitute routine of her life unsupported by any guaranteed livelihood or health care, she is most likely to say the latter, unless of course tutored to say otherwise.
And, however sensible, this would be an old-fashioned answer. And one deeply suspect from a nationalist point of view.
What we have learnt over the last five years is that all the perils to national safety come from outside the boundaries of the nation, and that such people who draw attention to nation-debilitating practices within the country are people who sup with the designated devil.
Thus, historic levels of unemployment among our youth, unprecedented distress among the farming community who constitute some sixty per cent of our population, an acutely despairing alienation among our minority populations, episodes of public vigilantism and lynching of the “other” leading to gruesome street-side fatalities with the public and the police looking the other way, atrocities perpetrated on women, children, Dalits, unconscionable inequality of incomes (one per cent Indians own seventy per cent of national wealth), modern-day slavery among domestic helpers and children below fourteen years of age, a heartless absence of public health services of any acceptable standard or sustained dependability, pushing the bulk of India’s work force to sub-human levels of subsistence each time there is disease in the household (which is pretty much all of the time), the inability of millions of children to pursue educaton beyond the primary stage owing to lack of resource and the need to augument family incomes, law-enforcement mechanisms that never seem to work for the eighty per cent, the impossibility of legal redress to the same eighty per cent on account of exorbitant legal costs and interminable delays in justice-delivery—none of these and other such internal fault-lines, we are to understand, comprise threats to national safety. In any circumstance, however crushing to the citizen, she must be found ready and willing to hurl imprecations at some external enemy on behalf of those at home chiefly responsible for their crushing circumstances.
The only time that national safety is threatened internally is when such crushed people organise and agitate to obtain what is due to them from the Constitution and the justice system.
Indeed, this sort of enumeration is to be viewed as a deeply conspiratorial agenda, based wholly on fake facts and arguments, and calculated to derail the main concern of the strong-minded ruler to appear strong against some menace ostensibly waiting to strike from the outside. And such “populist” agendas are best left to friendly nationalist media channels to be maligned as unpatriotic, and to be spun out of existence. Just as well to remind ourselves that the one per cent are always safe from the sort of tribulations listed above, and therefore understandably minded to look for threats to safety elsewhere. And in those contentions with fire and brimstone, the young sons of hapless farmers, and other labouring populations are called upon to soldier the nation to euphoric episodes of victory. Few victories of course accrue to those who constitute “we the people”.
Another significant and game-changing lesson we have learnt has to do with what it is that comprises “strong” leadership. Certainly, strong are not those who speak of social cohesion and unity across faiths, castes, regions, cultures. Or those who silently but assiduously work for peace at home and peace abroad. Or those who in word and deed seek to identify themselves with “we the people”. Or those who draw lessons only of common humanity, compassion, equality from the great books and scriptures of the world, ignoring the passages that give strident call to arms.
Thus, by our new test of “strong” leadership, the Gandhis of the world come a cropper, although they have their politic uses at times of politic necessity.
“Strong” leaders are those who dump moral and human pusillanimities, boldly call out “enemies”, real or constructed, thump their chests, give the all-consuming war-cry and score bullet points of macho prowess. “Strong” leaders are those who unabashedly polarise citizens, go after the “wrong” ones, and thus carry out the task of achieving a seamlessly pure nation wherein everyone is of one and the same mind, singing praises of a mono-culture ordained by a “strong” leadership that, although ruling by democratic legitimation, draws its not-to-be-questioned authority from some prerogative sanctioned by one or the other unproven myth.
“Strong” is the leader who views the perils of a reasoned life more suicidal than the perils of a noise-ridden, mono-chromatic animus against all those who question and seek accountability. Most of all, a strong leader is one who constantly worries about not being strong, lest she be thought weak and wavering. Thus a strong leader must require of herself to be relentlessly theatrical and demonstrative, consolidating public impressions meant to subjugate more thought-provoking offerings. A weak leader often sits back and lets people think their thoughts; a strong leader may never allow herself that risk.
Thus it is that a people in sound health, with rational minds and liberal propensities , happily engaged in soulful work, women safe from oppression in and out of the household, young people daring the zeitgeist with free enquiry, well-nourished children of all classes relishing their schooling, farmers secure from penury and the need to commit self-slaughter, law-enforcement agencies armed with an impartial mandate and conscience, state institutions carrying out their constitutional tasks without fear or favour, medical services fully equipped and at close quarters delivering redress not as mercenaries but as missionaries—all these are irrelevant to national security.
We have learnt that national security can come only from a righteous and unlimited energy of hate directed at enemies that lie beyond national boundaries and mealy-mouthed questioners and peace-makers at home, who then are reminded that they had better go live where the enemy lives.
Which raises the ominous other question: what happens to the agenda of national security if enemies refuse to be enemies? This can lead to a situation where there may be no one to vanquish, but where, god forbid, the strong leadership may find itself listening to the importunities of its own people, and finding no weapons to vanquish that menace.
Badri Raina, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012. Thereafter he wrote two more books, Idea of India Hard to Beat: Republic Resilient and Kashmir: A Noble Tryst in Tatters.