An article by Selig Harrison in the International Herald Tribune, reprinted in other papers, has captured attention here in Singapore. It foresees a gloomy future for Pakistan, suggesting that the country could eventually break up along ethnic lines. There is also much discussion about the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo and Putin’s strong reaction to it. And then, there is Spielberg’s protest against the purported involvement of China in the Darfur conflict. Across the world, subnational entities are claiming their right for nationhood and statehood, facing repression resulting in violent upheavals. The last quarter of a century has seen a lot of this—Russia and the Central Asian Republics; Czechs and Slovaks, Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia. The European menace now seems ready to spread elsewhere, to South-East Asia, East Timor and other countries.
The interesting, and perhaps worrying, part is that after creating a separate nation based on their cultural identity, these new, quite small, nation states seem to have done quite well for themselves. Most of the Central Asian republics are prospering, so are the Czechs and Slovaks, as well as several of the other countries mentioned above. Their GDP per capita has grown substantially, and human development index improvements have been more rapid than in India. There seems to be some strength to the argument that small states are better governed and able to take better advantage of their resources.
Could such trends emerge in India? What would be the consequences?
Recent and continuing events in Maharashtra indicate that though a political ploy, there is some support for the anti-north Indian sentiment. It is also now clear that there is sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamils, even the most violent fractions of it, in Tamil Nadu. We saw the anti-Bihari sentiment in Assam. There is the Telengana movement in Andhra Pradesh. Of these, perhaps the Assam and Maharashtra sentiments are driven more by competition for economic development; the Tamil Nadu one is truly an ethnic sentiment.
Apart from these, there are also sub-national movements based on deep-rooted caste differences. There is an attempt to enlarge the footprint of the BSP across India; there have been earlier attempts to unite Yadavs of the country, and so on. A number of caste-based political parties are springing up and jockeying for position in coalitions that can be formed to rule, both in the states and at the Centre. Finally, there is the divide between the secular and the non-secular parties—itself an attempt to divide the citizens.
Running through all these fissures is the gap between the poor and the non-poor, expressing itself in violence and extremism in states with Naxalite activity.
Some broad observations are possible. First, this country has lived with differences for several thousand years, and its cultural identity, habits and regional influences, have coalesced into a national identity that is not easy to dissolve. Most movements mentioned here have been put together by groups seeking political power within the democratic framework. They recognize that this is an era of coalition politics, and that even small groups would have leverage in the coalition beyond their actual voting percentages. It is understandable that with the largest political parties unable to grow the democracy into a two-party system, other participants, based on different ideology or caste groupings, would emerge. Still, it has to be recognized that the political process is the path to economic influence, and the reservations, patronage and rent-seeking are likely to be the motivation for these small parties to survive and prosper.
Perhaps this should be the cause for worry. The so-called subnational entities, unlike in other parts of the world, do not have (except a very few) a clearly defined region or geography to claim nationhood or statehood. But there is certainly a claim on public offices, public finance, public patronage, and indeed the spoils of office that these groups are strongly fighting for. It is this approach to appropriation of state resources by a few that the extremists are fighting against, and they are gaining ground.
It is important to recognize fissiparous tendencies and find solutions. At the individual level, there are opportunities for all. One has only to look at the growing middle class, the young and the affluent. It is important to provide the same access to everyone, so that there is no need to seek niches to grow in. So one goes back to the importance of inclusive growth, of higher educational attainments, better access to skills and technology and the host of economic actions that are necessary to bring prosperity to the entire nation. If there are opportunities for growth and affluence for all, across the entire country, there would be pride in nationhood. One has only to look at the multicultural US to recognize this. The urgency for removing regional disparities, for improving the lot of agriculture, for providing opportunities for the poor and the backward, is thus no longer just an economic agenda —it is necessary if we are to keep the nation together after a decade.
S. Narayan is a former finance secretary and economic adviser to the prime minister. We welcome your comments at email@example.com