The lustre of globalization is ebbing, nationalism and patriotism are scorchingly fashionable. Patriotism was once described as the last refuge of scoundrels and nationalism was once seen as a violent ideology that fuelled two world wars. But today after Brexit and the triumph of Narendra Modi and Donald Trump, it is evident that a resounding espousal of nationhood delivers big political rewards. Benedict Anderson’s argument in his seminal work `Imagined Communities’, about a nationalism that is politically powerful and philosophically poor was never more relevant. In the era of virtual identities, as expatriate communities yearn for an idyllic homeland and give vent to nationalist rage in cyberspace (even as they benefit from open borders and free trade), the imagined nation is a potent force.
The Indian non-resident patriot’s email nationalism or virtual nationalism spills forth on social media, expressing itself often as Hindu rage against the rule of the UPA posited as colonial dominance by the `foreign’ Sonia Gandhi. The rise of Modi as the Hindu nationalist hero is seen as the triumph of an authentic bharat against foreign educated Macaulayputras, or English-speaking, foreign oriented Indians who are cut off from the grit of the Indian soil, yet have ruled because of colonial privileges, the mythical “Lutyens Elite”. Amidst this heightened nationalist fever, spiking on social media after Modi’s win in 2014 came Shashi Tharoor’s energetic debate speech last year at the Oxford Union. Tharoor was speaking for the motion, “Britain Owes Reparations To Her Former Colonies,” and launched into a brilliantly argued, no-holds barred nationalist roar against former colonial masters.
The video of the speech coursed through the cyber community like fast moving volcanic lava, shared, as Tharoor tells us in his book, over 3 million times. Cyber nationalists, Hindutva patriots, Modi bhakts who had mercilessly trolled Tharoor for his secular views, now hailed him as a hero for giving voice to their aggressive nationalism. A speech that echoed the views of the nationalist school of history writing begun as far back as the late 19th century had found a new millennial constituency.
Tharoor has now converted that ‘viral’ Oxford union speech into a new book, `An Era of Darkness’ (Aleph) in which he expands his theme of the evil, heartless, greedy and racist British mercilessly exploiting India, impoverishing its people, stealing its riches, destroying its social fabric and leaving it with a ruined economy, dysfunctional democracy and confused modernity, with even the so-called gains of colonialism like the English language and the railway network being only very mixed blessings. But while Tharoor’s speech was fluent drama, the book at times reads like a politicians’ rant. While the speech was punchy and riveting, the book does at times feel like a re-run of nationalist historiography of the 19th and early twentieth century.
`An Era of Darkness’ ranges through an impressive body of works and presents itself as an informed polemic on the ravages of colonial rule. But in the process it reinvents the wheel of nationalist history writing, sounding like an updated version of Rajni Palme Dutt’s `India Today’ written in the 1930s which provides an authoritative account of 3 phases of the Raj in India, from plunder to capitalist exploitation to finance imperialism. Dadabhai Naoroji, one of the founders of the Indian National Congress, as far back as the mid 19th century put forward the drain of wealth theory in his book `Poverty and Unbritish Rule in India.’ Nationalist history has since been overtaken by historians of the Marxist, Cambridge and Subaltern schools,