Nationalism Has Been Both Uniting and Dividing Force in India Under Modi


Throughout the centuries of states’ existence, various political ideas and movements have emerged to represent people’s views on how a state should function and in what ways people should interact. In this regard, national identity has played a significant role in forming political, social, and cultural environments. Despite the modern political shift toward equality, tolerance, liberty, and sovereignty, contemporary politics is impacted by globalization (Greenfeld, 2016). Indeed, the diversity of the population of many countries around the world is influenced by a significant rate of human mobility, immigration, and ethnic mixes. Therefore, the distinction between nationalities becomes blurred, and the issue of national identity acquires new controversial aspects. Within such a context, nationalism as a political power might be viewed as an effective tool for enhancing national identity and uniqueness through its integration into the political agenda.

The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, who was elected in 2014 as a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), launched his election campaign by promoting the policy of nationalism. Such a choice of state policy allowed for unifying the state in terms of strengthening its cultural heritage, foreign policies, and economy, as well as disrupting the relationship between minorities and the state. The complexity of such manifestations of nationalism might be addressed from the perspective of the unity between the psychological, social, cultural, and political dimensions of a state policy.

Therefore, in order to theorize the psychological underpinnings of nationalism in India, a psychosocial theoretical approach, relative deprivation theory, and theory of imagined communities will be used. It helps analyze the phenomenon of nationalism from the perspective of the merger between society, politics, and culture (Frosh, 2018). The present paper is designed to explore the psychological features of nationalism as it was implemented in India to argue that Modi’s nationalistic policy had a two-fold effect on the state, namely serving as both uniting and dividing force. The paper is anticipated to contribute to understanding the reasons behind the dual effect of nationalism on the state with the use of relevant psychological concepts and theories.

Nationalism as a Political Force

In a broad sense, nationalism entails an array of ideas and principles that promote the unity between nation and state. Nationalism might be defined as “a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent” (Henderson, 2016, p. 8). As a celebration of the nation, it “involves a desire for political sovereignty exercised by a nation over a given territory” (Mylonas and Tudor, 2021, p. 110). In other words, this political movement is founded on the idea of fostering political power by promoting national identity as a driving force of state advancement. Indeed, national identity is the core of nationalism since it predetermines the basis for a large group of people to unite around sameness.

As defined by Volkan (2001), large group identity is “the subjective experience of thousands or millions of people who are linked by the persistent sense of sameness while also sharing numerous characteristics with others in foreign groups” (p. 81). This sameness or nationhood is comprised of family and ancestors’ experiences and some broader dimensions. In particular, national identity consists of such dimensions as political, cultural, religious, historical, linguistic, and social (Khojasteh et al., 2020). The belongingness of people to the same political environment, identifying with the same history, and culture, speaking the same language, and existing in the same social domain predetermines their national identity.

However, since the diverse contemporary world cannot exist in forms where pure nations strive, nationalism cannot be implemented as a genuine force; it can only be imposed artificially. Consequently, there exist different types of nationalism, depending on the approach employed by the government or the goals pursued by the political bodies (Khojasteh et al., 2020; Mylonas and Tudor, 2021; Volkan, 2001). Therefore, the types of nationalism are predetermined by local particularities and might be unique to particular countries. The case of India demonstrates that ethnicity and culture comprise the core of modern Indian nationalism.

In order to review the phenomenon of nationalism properly, one should consider its origin. The rise of democratic political ideas in modernity necessitates nationalism to be implemented through peaceful and tolerable means. In accord with democratic principles, the emerging universal citizenship that pursues equality between majorities and minorities was expected to lead to the diminished role of national identity. Indeed, since it is impossible to impose nationality-related sameness on people from diverse ethnicities, other categories and dimensions were used by different countries to initiate nationalistic agendas. They included labor affiliation, social status, class affiliation, or religion (Outhwaite, 2017). However, with the emergence of the industrial revolution, globalization, and diversification, the majority of these elements became irrelevant for triggering sameness in large population groups, and the states started to refer to alternative political forces. In essence, nationalism implies a forced unification of different people by inventing the basis for their sameness, which can have both positive and negative effects.

Psychological Underpinnings of Nationalism

As a strong and determined political movement, nationalism contains significant psychological features. They are validated by the notion that the nationalist approach emphasizes collective identity, in which every group member is associated with the overall characteristics of the larger group, which is the nation. Indeed, apart from being a mere political phenomenon, nationalism exists in a variety of other domains where individuals function. In such a manner, human activity, worldview, and attitudes toward the state and compatriots are predetermined by the psychological issues experienced as the result of the political agenda. The way people feel about the political environment and how they experience the multiple manifestations of life within a state predetermines their social moods, electoral potential, and overall satisfaction with existence. Therefore, it is essential to apply psychological theories to the phenomenon of nationalism to analyze its positive and negative impact on large groups and individuals.

The psychosocial theory might be applied to explore and explain nationalism in its complexity. The merge of two primary domains affected by the politics of nationalism, namely psychological and social, allows for explaining the congruency of culture, politics, and society. According to Frosh (2019), psychosocial theory as a multidisciplinary approach best applies to complex political issues because it allows for combining different elements and analyzing their interdependence. Another theoretical approach that provides a solid basis for discussing nationalism is the theory of imagined communities generated by Anderson (2020). This approach validates the artificial grounds of nationalism as a political phenomenon consisting of invented sameness. Indeed, this approach allows for critically analyzing nationalism as a flawed policy aimed at pursuing the interests of large groups without addressing the needs and interests of smaller ones.

Within the context of the currently explored topic, it is relevant to review the psychological concepts that apply to the dividing effect separately from those characterizing the uniting impact. On the one hand, nationalism triggers such feelings as pride, gratitude, solidarity, accomplishment, self-respect, a sense of belongingness, and satisfaction with life. Moreover, the need for a nation for collective narcissism as a source of pride and self-respect validates the positive effects of nationalism (Cichocka and Cislak, 2019). These psychological features originate from the positive effects of nationalism that are generated by the state’s efforts to praise the nation, emphasizing its historical path, cultural richness, economic achievements, and overall national heritage. When identifying with a large group characterized by such positive features, people feel the power of unity and tend to express it in a patriotic mindset and actions.

On the other hand, some of the negative features of nationalism are evident from the adverse feelings generated by this political force. In particular, narcissism, fear, anxiety, the lack of safety and security, identity deprivation, and other psychological problems arise as the result of nationalism (Anderson, 2020; Gettleman. et al., 2019; Sengupta, Osborne and Sibley, 2019; Volkan, 2001). These feelings are mostly applicable to the minority groups or the ones that do not fall under the category of a dominant nation whose identity is prioritized and promoted at the state and governmental levels.

Furthermore, another psychological construct that has been empirically addressed in research and relates to the negative impact of nationalism is relative deprivation. Indeed, two aspects of this construct, namely group-based relative deprivation and individual relative deprivation, are opposed by nationalistic political agendas to validate that one group prevails over the other (Sengupta, Osborne and Sibley, 2019). In particular, Sengupta, Osborne, and Sibley (2019) argue that “nationalism is appealing to ethnic majorities in the face of perceived group deprivation because it buffers their wellbeing against the negative psychological consequences of feeling that their group is deprived” (p. 761). In such a manner, the psychological feelings generated by nationalism might be negative due to the generated deprivation constructs that are an inevitable attribute of this political approach.

Nationalism in India under Modi’s Office

The manifestation of nationalism in the Indian context, as it has been implemented by the BJP government, has its particularities and demonstrates the goals Modi intended to achieve by means of this political idea. Indeed, throughout the election campaign of 2014, Modi demonstrated his intentions to improve India’s economic level and social standards by prioritizing national ideals and uniqueness. Being implemented in the form of a so-called ‘Hindu Renaissance,’ nationalism in India has “made inroads into education, development, the environment, industry, culture, and almost every other aspect of public life” (Anderson and Longkumer, 2018, p. 372). Thus, the dominating culture is promoted while minorities are excluded.

As it has been defined by the BJP government, the official policy of the party in India is cultural nationalism, which entails that the ethnic and cultural dominance of Hindus must prevail as a whole national ideology. Such an approach excludes the religious aspect from the nationalistic agenda and provokes controversy and conflict between the Hindu majority and Christians and Muslims, whose interests are ignored under the nationalistic policy (Anderson and Longkumer, 2018). Using national populism as a political tool, Modi managed to engage with electoral support and implement nationalism as a state-wide policy where any other culture or religion, but Hindus is viewed as second-class (Jaffrelot, 2021). Therefore, nationalism in the form that was used in India has a binary psychological effect on the population of the country since it unites the people on the basis of the strengths of national identity but polarizes ethnicities and religious affiliations. These two-fold particularities of Indian cultural nationalism will be broader addressed in the consecutive sections of the essay.

Nationalism as a Uniting Force in India

The unifying effect of Modi’s policy in the political and economic domains has been validated by the prominent achievements of the country and the advancement of its foreign policy and intra-state affairs. However, it is essential to identify the unifying psychological forces behind the cultural nationalistic agenda. Indeed, when referring to the improvements in the country’s economic performance and foreign affairs, one might associate these achievements with a positive psychological influence on the population. Since the pride for the state and the nation (since, according to nationalism, nation and state are equal) is enhanced due to the successes of India, the employed policy allows for the unification of people.

Another positive, unifying manifestation of nationalism is presented in its opposition to cosmopolitism. Indeed, according to Bayram (2019), the main argument of nationalists against cosmopolitan theorists is that cosmopolitism lacks obligatory patriotism. Such a claim validates the advantages of nationalism in its ability to join multiple individuals inhabiting a country into one large group for the purposes of unification. Since nationalism generates patriotic obligations, necessitates prioritizing national identity, and provides people with a sense of belongingness, it has positive effects on society at large (Bayram, 2019). Consequently, since the members of a large group with the same national identity are connected by history, culture, language, environment, and other similarities, their sameness becomes a source of support. From the perspective of psychosocial theory, nationalism constructs a strong social bonding between people, which might be effectively used by a state in times of unrest or military conflict when resolving international issues.

Notably, narcissism, although a negative psychological phenomenon, might be viewed as a unifying force generated by nationalism. Indeed, the nationalistic agenda strives to promote the perfection and superiority of a single nation. For these purposes, the authorities promote cultural practices, and educational interventions for the popularization of the elements of national identity and apply other tools to advance citizens’ pride in their country. In India, it is manifested through the educational promotion of Hindu culture, yoga classes, and other state-wide programs that make Hinduism a dominating culture (Gettleman et al., 2019; Kim, 2019). As a result, collective narcissism emerges, which implies the feelings of one nation’s superiority over others (Cichocka and Cislak, 2020). Collective narcissism is defined as “a grandiose in-group image that is contingent upon external recognition of the in-group’s worth” (Cichocka and Cislak, 2020, p. 71). Regardless of its dominating underpinnings, narcissism might serve as a basis for unification due to the similarity of citizens’ feelings about their national identity as a privilege or an advantage.

Nationalism as a Dividing Force in India

However, contrary to unifying, nationalism based on cultural and ethnic identity divides the Indian population due to the opposition of Hindus to minorities. The reason why Indian nationalism serves as a dividing force is related to the selective prioritization of one large group over smaller ones, which constitute the state. According to Henderson (2016), “in post-communist Europe, cultural assimilation has served to unite one community and exclude others,” which is similar to the state of affairs with cultural nationalism in India under the government of the BJP (p. 8). Since Hindus are prioritized over minorities, the representatives of smaller population groups might experience fear, emotional distress, uncertainty, and anxiety. These psychological states interfere with the idea of national unification since they destroy diversity and impose a sense of disadvantage on a significant part of the population.

The very contradiction in the definition and theorizing of nationalism as a phenomenon undermines its potential for unity. Indeed, according to Kim (2019), “nationalism is based on the core understanding that the nation is real and its entire people share some commonality” (para. 3). However, the theorists of nationalism, namely Anderson (2020), have claimed that a nation as a community is imagined, hence unreal or fictionally created to pursue sameness in large groups for political purposes. Since the sameness is not validated by really existing achievements or genuinely unifying elements, the feelings of the citizens are disrupted and cannot lead to solid unification. It rather generates a conflict of opinions in the society, where one group might share the idea about national identity, and another considers it artificial.

Indeed, given the diversity of cultures, languages, ethnicities, and religions in the large state of India, the idea of national identity is contradicting since only the majority can identify with the Hindu culture that is promoted by the government at a state-wide political level (Kim, 2019). Moreover, India is “the second most populous nation, after China; it is a pivotal geopolitical player; its economy is huge, and everyone wants to do business here, and it has a long secular history” (Gettleman et al., 2019, para. 14). In other words, the groups of citizens that do not comply with the nationalistic ideas or represent a minority might be considered as those interfering with the interests of the state since they promote cultural identity different from the one promoted as a state-wide policy.

When returning to the context of India under Modi’s government, a vivid example of Muslim communities might demonstrate the claim. As evident from the article by Gettleman et al. (2019), Muslims experience oppression on a daily basis due to their minority status in the face of “Hindi-first” national policy. Although these people’s ancestors have lived in India for centuries, they seem to be excluded from the larger group due to their cultural and religious difference (Gettleman et al., 2019). As a result, they feel divided from the nation, feel deprived of security, a sense of belongingness, and accomplishment. Moreover, they live in constant fear and anxiety due to the recurring conflicts and hate crimes.

Furthermore, another significant issue that contributes to the dividing impact of nationalism in India is the overall historical reputation of it being a destructive force capable of eliminating any elements that contradict the superiority of a given nation. In particular, as claimed by several scholars investigating the psychology and sociology of nationalism, the events of the Holocaust, World War II, the Vietnam War, and others bear the notion of nationalism as a negative disruptive policy (Henderson, 2016; Outhwaite, 2017). The negative history behind the examples of nationalism cases contributes to the acquired trauma that is instantly associated with nationalism (Volkn, 2001). When perceiving this policy as a threat, it might serve as a dividing force for people.


In summation, the explored characteristics of the Nationalistic policy of the BJP government guided by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonstrate that the emphasis on Hindu cultural identity at the state level has both uniting and dividing effects on the population. When viewed from the perspective of psychosocial theory, nationalism, as it has been implemented in India by Modi, has unifying characteristics. They are validated by the ability of this political force to unite the society around politically promote4d cultural identity. Moreover, the idea of collective narcissism applies to the unifying potential of nationalism since it provides the basis for citizens’ sameness in terms of pride for their country and nation.

On the other hand, several psychological constructs and concepts demonstrate the dividing force of nationalism. In particular, the construct of group-related relative deprivation, which arises from the opposition of one group to another, triggers oppression and separation of the groups. Similarly, the theory of imagined communities explains the forced unification of the nationalist agenda, which originated in artificially constructed history, culture, and traditions that are made to persuade populations to live in sameness. Finally, since minorities feel diminished under the influence of dominating culture, and prior historical examples of nationalism demonstrate its threatening effects on humanity and world peace at large, nationalism causes separation in a state and might have negative outcomes.

Reference List

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