Should the state promote patriotism?

As the nation completes its 75th year of Independence, the Indian State had initiated the ‘Har Ghar Triranga’ campaign which encourages citizens to hoist the national flag at their home from 13th to 15th August. This campaign raises certain questions which I shall try to address in a series of posts..

First of all, the fundamental question..
Should the State be promoting patriotism at all?

Before we arrive at an answer, let’s try to understand what patriotism is.. Is it different from its closely related concept, Nationalism?

Stephen Nathanson defines patriotism as involving:
1. Special affection for one’s own country
2. A sense of personal identification with the country
3. Special concern for the well-being of the country
4. Willingness to sacrifice to promote the country’s good

All these feelings resonate with Nationalism too. So a simple approach could be that patriotism is to a country what Nationalism is to a nation. In most cases country and nation overlap, and the differences matter only when a country is not homogenous or when a nation lacks a country. This approach equates country to the State.

But even when the country and nation overlap, Nation is a sociological & psychological concept while State is geopolitical concept. The state of India includes all it’s citizens and is well defined. The definition of the Nation of India can vary between people, while some might exclude certain sections of people, and others might include geographical regions outside the borders. In this context, it is relevant to recall the remarks made by George Orwell in his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’. He says, “Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.” He further adds, “nationalist feeling can be purely negative”. From further reading of his essay, am inclined to think of patriotism as a positive feeling to one’s own country while Nationalism to include a negative feeling against the ‘Other’.

Now, should these be promoted?

A nation had no physical existence and it exists in the mind of the community that imagines it. And by definition Nation has a tendency to expand. Hence the members are motivated to promote Nationalism, teach it to younger members of the community etc. There is no agent principal problem here.

However, when it comes to a State, State is an independent actor acting on behalf of its citizens. Should the state promote patriotism?

Coming from the first principles, is there a market failure? There is no transaction and clearly there is no aspects of information asymmetry, externalities or market failure.


Is there a case for public good problem? Does patriotism lead to positive outcomes as well as not produced enough by the society? Studies have concluded that patriotism motivates citizens to better cooperate with the State especially to achieve societal goals. Though it has positive impact, patriotism by itself is not a public good that needs government intervention.

So purely from a public policy perspective we can conclude that the state need not promote patriotism or Nationalism.

But still, patriotism is needed for the survival of the state. In a diverse country like India, sense of national integration and unity comes from patriotism, lack of which can result in disintegration of the State. Another oft-repeated example is that of war. War requires selfless sacrifice of human life and it is enabled by patriotism.

But what’s the role of State in both this situation? Should the principal act or the agent?

The State is there to represent the citizens. In a war, should the citizens fight? Or the State on behalf of the citizens? But State can not fight, it’s the citizens who have to fight, enabled by the State. A paradox indeed.

So if the citizens do not want to fight, can the state coerce them to fight? If citizens want to secede from the State, should the state prevent them? Isn’t the State supposed to represent the interests of it’s citizens?

I believe these issues must be left to the collective intelligence of the citizens or at least guided by the collective will of the society.

Citizens coming together and celebrating the Independence Day is very different from the State motivating the citizens to celebrate it in a specific way. When the State starts to promote patriotism, the agent is trying to ensure its survival while the principal’s intentions are not considered. Even if we assume that the principal (citizens) want to promote patriotism, that task has not been delegated to the agent.

State is empowered with monopoly on violence and coercion to perform very specific duties. Widening the mandate to get involved in tasks not delegated results in sub optimal performance of the duties expected from the State. It can also be argued that the Indian state is engaging in such activities to divert the attention from its sub optimal performance.

When the effective head of the state is aiming to become a developed country in 25 years, it’s important for the State to concentrate its resources and efforts on its core responsibilities and not dilute it by engaging in rhetoric.

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