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India, the Coming Together Feudal State

India is a state-nation rather than a nation-state. Such was Professor Ashutosh Varshney’s topic of discussion at an Asia Society forum in Mumbai on Thursday, which I moderated.

First, what’s the difference? Nation-states, largely a 19th century European construct, were top-down affairs with one region subduing others and imposing religion, language and often culture. This process was often violent and largely non-democratic.¬†France and Germany are exemplars. State-nations, explained Varshney, are bottom-up creations with various regions binding together to form a united polity. The United States is broadly an example. India, so far, is too.

India was always a federal entity given its diversity, its constitution and its democracy. The original Hindutva advocates argued for a unitary state grounded in a common Hindu-based polity. But the requirements of democratic politics meant that even when the BJP came to power, it ended up following policies closer to those of a state-nation.

The point Varshney stressed is that the state-nation idea assumes that relations between the Center and the states are not a zero-sum game. If New Delhi is a mess, it doesn’t mean the state governments will be beneficiaries. “Both center and state can grow strong,” says Varshney.

But there are many, especially in Delhi and the central government, who worry India will be like the European Union rather than, say, China or even the United States. And that this will mean a weak India, forever tied up with some chief minister’s concerns, unable to put up a united front in anything.

Varshney says otherwise. “A state-nation creates a sense of belonging among its people even while simultaneously giving political guarantees for diversity and minorities,” he says. The point is, it can still create a loyalty to the Center, which allows it to create a single economic space, push a nationalist foreign policy and all the stuff a nation-state does so well.

Is there evidence that such a sense of belonging among Indians exists? Varshney shows there is, noting that survey after survey shows that 80% or so of Indians are proud or very proud to be Indian — a statistic beaten only by the US and Australia. And only about 20% of Indians put their regional identity ahead of their national one — a remarkable figure for a country of its scale of poverty, diversity, and democracy.

Varshney attributes this to many factors: the army, the bureaucracy, the freedom struggle, cricket, Bollywood… But such nascent nationalism can only rise as India urbanizes and its middle class swells. Its best corporations are also icons of this new Indian sentiment.

India’s federalism, once shown to work, could well prove a model for countries with similar diversities, like Indonesia or Myanmar or Pakistan. All three are countries in which the military has or is engaged in large-scale operations to bring swathes of their own country into the national mainstream. As Varshney points out, while India faced simultaneous secessionist insurgencies in Kashmir and Punjab in the late 1980s, this till only represented 3% of the population.

Copyright 2013 the Hindustan Times.

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