In his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell warns us against words and phrases drained of all meaning, words that can mean whatever the powerful want it to mean. One such term gaining in currency is ‘national interest’.
Government spin doctors (and their stenographers in the media) routinely conflate national interest with people’s interest. But ‘national interest’ is very different from the people’s interest.
‘National interest’ concerns a nation-state’s ability to wage war. Whatever enhances this ability is considered to be in the national interest; whatever threatens it is against the national interest. The most transparent expression of this principle is seen in the ruling classes’ obsession with ‘national security’.
The people’s interest, on the other hand, is always issue-specific. It is rooted in local geography, history, and community, while ‘national interest’ is tied to abstractions such as ‘development’ or ‘reform’ or ‘security’. The people’s interest might find a voice in democratic platforms, such as a movement or a party, while national interest is ‘protected’ through the executive and repressive arms of the state – the PMO, the police, etc. And where the people’s interest comes in conflict with ‘national interest’, the former will be booted out, democracy be damned.
A good example of ‘national interest’ is our mindless obsession with Kashmir, where anyone who speaks of the democratic will of the people of Kashmir is branded as ‘anti-national’. Hello! If India is a ‘democracy’, and democracy means implementing the will of the people, then the will of the people of Kashmir – whatever it is – should be carried out, and for that you don’t need AFSPA or mass graves or the army. A referendum should be good enough. Try telling that to the guardians of India’s ‘national interest’.
The real reason for the Indian elite’s obsession with Kashmir is that ‘losing Kashmir’ (whatever that means) will make the Indian state look ‘weak’. And because perceptions of weakness are as much a no-no as real weakness, it overrides the democratic rights of real human beings living in the Valley (people’s interest).
In fact, the momentum is going the other way: in his Independence Day speech this year, Prime Minister Yo Yo Money Singh declared that economic growth will henceforth be a ‘national security’ issue. Now, that’s a very direct way of letting your people know that when it comes to enriching the already-rich in the name of economic growth, the state from now on has a ‘legitimate’ reason to crush people’s interest (real democracy): national security. Don’t you dare stand in the way – of SEZs, of mining, of forcible land acquisition for industry, etc.
This brings us to another Orwellian word: democracy. Democracy is not an absolute state, like, say, pregnancy. You’re either pregnant or you aren’t. But you can be a democracy and also not be one. How? Because democracy is a description of a process, and a matter of degree. Therefore, to say ‘India is a democracy’ means nothing. Democracy comes into existence only in history, in the processes followed in specific situations involving different interest groups.
In India, save for the urban educated middle class, democracy has served more as a safety valve mechanism for channelling frustration than as an effective tool to bring about lasting change in the lives of the disempowered. Two random examples will suffice to illustrate India’s failed experiment with democracy.
One, the terrible brutality with which the state repressed the villagers protesting the nuclear plant in Kudankulam, an action best described in the protesters’ own words – as “the murder of democracy”. Two, allowing FDI in retail, which will cause the immiseration of the 40 million people employed in India’s informal retail sector. Such a large-scale destruction of livelihoods is the worst kind of anti-people villainy that a state can unleash, and yet that is what India’s “democratically elected” government has done.
In today’s India, it doesn’t really matter who you vote for; when the people’s interest clashes with corporate interest, the moneybags are bound to win, as has happened with FDI in retail and in Kudankulam. In both these cases, the state was aligned with corporate interests and against its own people.
Whenever this happens, the standard ideological manoeuvre of the ruling dispensation is to invoke ‘national interest’ in some form or the other. In Kudankulam, the ‘national interest’ argument was invoked to shove an anti-people project down the throats a community opposed to it. In the case of FDI in retail, ‘national interest’ takes the avatar of ‘economic growth’ (now conveniently a matter of ‘national security’).
Historically, it has suited the national elites that control the state machinery to align themselves with the economic power that corporations wield. So the people will always find themselves acting ‘against the national interest’ whenever they act against the interests of corporate capital. Hence, the need to closely monitor them.
So every democratic nation-state will eventually degenerate into a police state. The process is well underway in India and the US, and it’s no coincidence that the bulk of the Indian security forces currently in active deployment are ranged against their own fellow citizens – from Kashmir to Kudankulam. The Nazis demonstrated long ago that nationalism is incompatible with democracy. Modi will demonstrate this for India in a few years.
The Nazi, Joseph Goebbels, is supposed to have said, “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my gun.” Today, whenever a government spokesperson speaks of ‘national interest’ or ‘national security’ (or its post-modern avatar, ‘internal security’), it’s a sure sign that the state is preparing to use the gun against its own people. Operation Greenhunt, anyone?
G Sampath is an independent columnist based in Delhi.
He's reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org