Long on a roll, right-wing nationalists finally seem to be overreaching. Evidence came from two different sources this week: India and Britain.
Brexit, advocated and promoted by mostly English nationalists, always threatened the breakup of Great Britain. New Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now vowing to leave the European Union on Oct. 31 without a deal and regardless of the destructive consequences.
Support for independence has achieved a majority in Scotland, according to a poll this week. In Northern Ireland, the excesses of Tory Brexiteers have helped make the previously unthinkable prospect of a united Ireland mainstream. More people than ever - an estimated 41% - back independence even in Wales, which actually voted to leave the EU.
The nationalists’ more dramatic own goal, however, occurred in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government moved to repeal Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which sets out the special terms on which the independent princely state of Jammu and Kashmir acceded to India rather than Pakistan after the end of British rule.
Some other Indian states enjoy similar privileges of federalism. The reason why Modi’s government drastically demoted Kashmir to colonial-style vassalage as a “Union Territory” is primarily, even exclusively, ideological.
India’s only Muslim-majority state, Kashmir has hosted a long and relatively popular anti-India insurgency supported by Pakistan. Hindu nationalists have long campaigned to repeal Article 370 as part of a revanchist fantasy of “Akhand Bharat,” or Undivided India - a vision which includes reclaiming the part of Kashmir ruled by Pakistan.
Modi seems to have calculated that his successful electoral strategy of social-religious polarization can continue to curry favor from those who voted for him - and distract from his failure to turbocharge the economy or create jobs. Predictably, supporters loudly cheered his government’s apparent resolve to bring Kashmir to heel and to show the state’s Muslims their place.
This mode of politics can keep the base energized in the short run. As with Brexit, however, any radical expression of nationalism cannot but have radical long-term consequences: Consolidating territorial unity and sovereign power. Right-wing nationalism, in this sense, is its own nemesis.
The Brexiteers ignored unfavorable opinion in Scotland and Ireland until it was too late and the Pandora’s box of independence had opened. The Hindu nationalists are not so oblivious to the desires of Kashmiri Muslims. But they deliberately humiliate Kashmiris because they believe in full-spectrum dominance and in imposing it by awesome displays of force.
The government prepared for its bombshell on Monday with a massive infusion of security forces into Kashmir, which is already one the most militarized places on earth. It ordered the house arrests of opposition leaders and evacuation of Indian students and tourists, an indefinite curfew, and the shutdown of all modes of communication.
Clearly, the Hindu nationalists are hardly detained by scruples in a context where they either control or influence all of India’s major institutions. However, a ruling class that can so cavalierly dismiss the prospect of a permanently humiliated and resentful Muslim minority that numbers over 170 million citizens is in danger of being misled.
Hindu nationalists have clearly not thought through the long-term consequences of repealing Article 370. These will, of course, be manifest in Kashmir itself, where Modi’s government has presided over a spike in militant disaffection. As the aerial skirmishes between India and Pakistan this February showed, the authorities’ failure to check terrorist violence in the state, and compensatory saber-rattling and blustering, can make an already volatile situation spiral out of control.
The other grave consequences of the Hindu nationalist assault on India’s federal principles are less perceptible now. The undreamed-of scenes witnessed in Hong Kong lately - of young professionals resisting the diktats of remote-controlling authoritarian nationalists - could one day become commonplace in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai.
Drunk on power, the Hindu nationalists resemble the English Brexiteers as they blithely smash up fragile constitutional arrangements. History may record their actions now as another lesson in how nationalists so often overplay their hand - and self-destruct.