The Indian idea is that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, color, conviction, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a consensus. And that consensus is around the simple idea that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree – except on the ground rules of how you will disagree”, says the author

India, I have long argued, is more than the sum of its contradictions. It is a country held together, in the words of Nehru, “by strong but invisible threads… a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive”. The Idea of India – though the phrase is Tagore’s – is, in some form or another, arguably as old as antiquity itself.

However, the Idea of India as a modern nation based on a certain conception of human rights and citizenship, vigorously backed by due process of law and equality before law, is a relatively recent and strikingly modern idea. Earlier conceptions of India drew their inspiration from mythology and theology.

However, the modern idea of India, despite the mystical influence of Tagore, and the spiritual and moral influences of Gandhiji, is a robustly secular and legal construct based upon the vision and intellect of our founding fathers, notably Ambedkar, Nehru and Patel (in alphabetical order). The Preamble of the Constitution itself is the most eloquent enumeration of this vision. In its description of the defining traits of the Indian republic, in its conception of justice, of liberty, of equality and fraternity, it firmly proclaims that the law will be the bedrock of the Idea of India.

How did India preserve and protect a viable idea of itself in the course of the last 63 years, while it grew from 370 million people to 1.2 billion, reorganized its state structures, and sought to defend itself from internal and external dangers, all the while remaining democratic? I have tried to answer this question at length in my books. Certainly the accomplishment is extraordinary, and worthy of celebration. Amid India’s myriad problems, it is democracy that has given Indians of every imaginable caste, creed, culture, and cause the chance to break free of their age-old subsistence level existence. There is social oppression and caste tyranny, particularly in rural India, but Indian democracy offers the victims a means of escape, and often – thanks to the determination with which the poor and oppressed exercise their franchise – of triumph.

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The various schemes established by the UPA government, for the betterment of the rural poor are a result of this connect between our citizens and the State. One does question: What makes India a nation? In a country notorious for identity politics, especially at election time, we may well ask: What is an Indian’s identity? When an Italian nation was created in the second half of the 19th century out of a mosaic of principalities and small states, one Italian nationalist wrote: “We have created Italy. Now all we need to do is to create Italians.” It is striking that, half a century later, no Indian nationalist succumbed to the temptation to express a similar thought. The prime exponent of modern Indian nationalism, Nehru, would never have spoken of “creating Indians,” because he believed that India and Indians had existed for millennia before he articulated their political aspirations in the 20th century.

Nonetheless, the India that was born in 1947 was in a very real sense a new creation: a state that made fellow citizens of the Ladakhi and the Laccadivian, divided Punjabi from Punjabi and asked a Keralite peasant to feel allegiance to a Kashmiri Pandit ruling in Delhi, all for the first time. So Indian nationalism was not based on any of the conventional indices of national identity. Not language, since our constitution now recognizes 23 official languages, and as many as 35 languages spoken by more than a million people each. Not ethnicity, since the “Indian” accommodates a diversity of racial types in which many Indians (Punjabis and Bengalis, in particular) have more ethnically in common with foreigners than with their other compatriots.

Not religion, since India is a secular pluralist state that is home to every religion known to mankind, with the possible exception of Shintoism. Not geography, since the natural geography of the subcontinent – framed by the mountains and the sea – was hacked by the partition of 1947. And not even territory, since, by law, anyone with one grandparent born in pre-partition India – outside the territorial boundaries of today’s state – is eligible for citizenship. Indian nationalism has therefore always been the nationalism of an idea. It is the idea of an ever-ever land – emerging from an ancient civilization, united by a shared history, sustained by pluralist democracy.

India’s democracy imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens. The whole point of Indian pluralism is you can be many things and one thing: you can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite and a good Indian all at once. The Indian idea is the opposite of what Freudians call “the narcissism of minor differences”; in India, we celebrate the commonality of major differences. So the Idea of India is of one land embracing many. Geography helps, because it accustoms Indians to the idea of difference. The Indian idea is that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, color, conviction, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a consensus.

And that consensus is around the simple idea that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree – except on the ground rules of how you will disagree. This is the Idea of India that we must defend at all costs. As we go into General Elections 2014, the single most important issue is the threat posed by those aspirants for power who do not share this Idea of India – who believe in narrow sectarian definitions of Indianness and who are intolerant of diversity and difference. This is a battle for India’s soul. Regardless of who comes to power, we must all strive to ensure that the ultimate winner must be the Idea of India.

Dahi gujia