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The problem with Modi’s ‘Team India’

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation from the rampart of the historic Red Fort during Independence Day celebration, in New Delhi on Saturday. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation from the rampart of the historic Red Fort during Independence Day celebration, in New Delhi on Saturday. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Not every Indian is equally involved in the Prime Minister’s project of ‘moving the country ahead’. And the real ‘Team India’ that is piloting the nation’s development does not see eye to eye on many issues with vast sections of India’s population.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day address this year, though delivered in Hindi, was peppered with English words. Three kinds of English words.

The first kind was as follows — those that were already a part of spoken Hindi, though not quite the norm in formal speech; words such as ‘busy’, ‘injection’, ‘side-effect’, ‘request’, ‘fashion’, etc.

Then there were those that belong to a specific semantic cluster — the world of the market, business, management. To this category belong terms such as ‘work culture’, ‘financial inclusion’, ‘productivity’, ‘good governance’, ‘transparency’, ‘parameter’, ‘dimension’, ‘pyramid, ‘brand ambassador’, etc.

Closely allied to the linguistic milieu of the second is the third set of English usages: ‘Start-up India, Stand-up India’; ‘per drop, more crop’; and ‘Team India’.

In fact, ‘Team India’ occurred no less than 32 times in his speech of 85 minutes — more than any other catchphrase in either English or Hindi.

What is interesting is that, notwithstanding his Hindu-nativist, cultural nationalist pretensions, Mr. Modi settled on an English term to communicate his vision of the Indian nation as a team.

Why didn’t he use a Hindi equivalent for ‘Team India’? Is it because ‘Bharat Dal’ does not have the same ring as ‘Team India’? What’s more likely, it could be because the Hindi equivalents do not pack the same conceptual or ideological content that the English ‘team’ does.

Dynamics of a team

But what exactly is a team? What are the implications of imagining the nation as a team, as Mr. Modi did in his speech?

The dictionary defines a ‘team’ as “a set of people constituting one side in a competitive game”, or “a set of people working in combination.”

Three aspects stand out as integral to a team: competitiveness, being together, and work. Management textbooks typically add two more: a formal structure, and a purpose.

A team, then, is a group of people who work together in a structured way for a purpose that involves doing better than other teams. Armed with this understanding, we can try to answer the questions. Can a nation be a team? If yes, what then is the purpose of ‘Team India’?

In his speech, while introducing the concept of ‘Team India’, Mr. Modi made two points: one, that the country is “moving ahead” only because of ‘Team India’; two, that ‘Team India’ comprises our entire population of 125 crore people.

The two statements are patently untrue and mutually contradictory. Not every Indian is equally involved in Mr. Modi’s project of “moving the country ahead”. And the real ‘Team India’ that is piloting the nation’s development does not see eye to eye on many issues with vast sections of the 125 crore people that, as per Mr. Modi’s claim, comprise ‘Team India’.

To take an obvious example, Mr. Modi in his speech announced his intent to cure the “poison of casteism” with the “nectar of development”. But we are yet to hear the Prime Minister suggest that one Mr. Hardik Patel, agitating in Gujarat for reservations for his caste, should drop his demands in exchange for the ‘nectar of development’. After all, Mr. Patel and lakhs of his followers would be intimately familiar with the charms of this nectar, having tasted it in its purest form in the famed ‘Gujarat model’.

Given the extant fault lines of caste, ethnicity, language, region and religion that criss-cross the nation, Mr. Modi’s ‘Team India’ is clearly a project rather than a reality. Yet, even as a project, it is deeply problematic.

For instance, in the light of the recent events in Gujarat, are Patels and Dalits batting for the same team? Are indebted farmers contemplating suicide and billionaire investors seeking farmland part of the same team? Are Adivasis and mining companies equal members of ‘Team India’?

Furthermore, all teams are hierarchical, with a captain who calls the shots. In Mr. Modi’s re-imagining of the nation as a team, it is obvious who the captain is.

The logic of ‘Team India’

To understand the underlying logic of the Team India project, one must go back to the core ideas of a ‘team’: competition and purpose. Teams in the real world are typically time-bound — they come together for a task or activity, and disband once the task/activity is finished.

As the cementing element of a national identity, however, the team becomes an all-encompassing, permanent condition. Mr. Modi’s repeated invocation of ‘Team India’ communicates a vision of nationhood as a ‘team’ of 125 crore Indians that is in fierce competition for global supremacy with other nations. The task facing this team is nation-building (defined as strengthening the nation-state, not to be confused with the welfare of the poor). It is a task that can never end. Or end only at the level of the individual — with death.

Such a vision of ‘Team India’ demands a complete merger of the nation with the state, in which the citizen, instead of being a rights-bearing political entity with claims on the state, dwindles into a kind of glorified employee who, like any model employee of the 21st century, would put the interests of the team above self-interest (or any other interest). Here, the team’s interest, lest there be any doubt, means national interest.

The flip side of this idea of citizens as members of a national team is that any democratic dissent — or criticism of the captain — signifies ‘bad team player’. A bad team player sabotages the team’s interests, i.e., national interest. This follows naturally from the absolute subordination of citizenship — which entails rights vested in the individual — to the interests of the state. In other words, civil and democratic rights, such as privacy and freedom of expression, hold no importance from the perspective of the team.

If a media organisation was to report on human rights abuses perpetrated by the state, it could be viewed as harming the national interest. Ditto for non-governmental organisations (NGO). Not surprisingly, the Modi government has been far more draconian in its crackdown on rights-based NGOs compared to its predecessor.

From ‘Team India’ to ‘Team Modi’

The term ‘Team India’ first gained currency as a moniker for India’s national cricket team. Among Indian cricket fans, it was a mode of identification that evoked intense patriotic, and frequently jingoistic, passions. But ‘Team India’ in this case referred to a specific team of 11 skilled Indians who had come together to represent the country in a global competition. It did not comprise the entire population of India; 125 crore Indians might cheer for ‘Team India’, the cricket team. They might wear the team jersey, or paint their faces in the team colours. But they could not themselves participate in Team India’s World Cup campaign. They had no say in the team composition, or choice of captain, or match strategy, nor could they themselves go out and play — for they were not members of ‘Team India’ in reality. They were merely its cheerleaders, and had no illusions about it.

On the other hand, the nation recast as ‘Team India’ reproduces the same structure of patriotic identification but with an added bonus — the delusion of equal participation. Mr. Modi is the captain leading ‘Team India’. The actual ‘team’ here is the Indian state and those with access to, if not control over, its various levers.

All that the 125 crore ‘members’ of this so-called ‘Team India’ can do is cheer the captain and/or obey his instructions. When Mr. Modi asks 125 crore Indians to unite for the cause of ‘Team India’, he is effectively addressing them as their captain, instructing them to contribute their bit to make ‘Team India’ win — by offering it their lands, surrendering their rights, giving up their subsidies, all for the greater glory of ‘Team India’. It is essentially a top-down, anti-democratic project.

Finally, the very nature of team-centric discourse is such that the captain, sooner or later, becomes a metonym for the team. It remains to be seen whether this invocation of nationhood as a team catches on in public discourse. If it does, and the term ‘Team India’ as used by Mr. Modi achieves popular currency, it would be natural for it become interchangeable with Team Modi.


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