≡ Menu

Regions of the mind | The Indian Express

If the army feels it requires continuation of the AFSPA to discharge its responsibilities, no other agency is qualified to credibly challenge that view. The South Asia project founders because we dont have the imagination for it. South Asian cooperation seems to be drifting once again between a present that cannot endure and a future that is hard to envision. Despite impressive recent gains in regional cooperation,it is hard to shake off the feeling that the region is threatening to slide back into the past. India-Pakistan borders remain turbulent,though democracy is more institutionalised in the region. But the quality of democracies in the region threatens huge spillover effects. The trajectory of ethnic conflict varies,but it still casts a shadow over all our politics. The common ecological destiny of the region is barely a gleam in the eye. Economic cooperation is still,at best,grudging. Great power machinations tempt us to be too clever by half. There is,at one level,a sense of fatigue with the same old rituals of engagement,the same dramas of one step forward two steps back. There is a yearning for something new. But in comparison with the potential,little seems to move. There is also the familiar story of bottlenecks: an obdurate military establishment in Pakistan which has no commitment to the pacification of violence; the fragmentation of the Indian political system that makes implementing any strategy difficult; elites in smaller countries attracted by a politics of resentment; bureaucratic inertia. Let us also admit it: in India,there is little imaginative commitment to the region. It is low political priority. We are,after all,the big boys. A compliment by Obama is worth far more than effective dealing with neighbours. But there is a deeper question. Despite years of talking and some progress on projects,is there an exciting intellectual framework within which a new South Asian architecture can be envisioned? Are we in an intellectual cul de sac? One indication of this is that we dont even have the right vocabulary to characterise the project we are pursuing in the region. South Asia itself is an anodyne term. And perhaps that is an advantage. In terms of objectives,we swing between two terms,neither of which quite captures the task at hand. Cooperation is one term. But it is as much a signifier of low aspiration as anything. What is the larger framework in which cooperation makes sense? The other,more expansive term in public discourse is regional integration. But integration is a political non-starter. It evokes all kinds of historical baggage and anxiety integration on whose terms? So how do we name an aspiration for the region beyond the bureaucratese of officials? Naming this aspiration poses challenges. The paradox of South Asia is that the very thing we share,a complex interconnected cultural matrix,is the thing that divides us. Or rather,it works only if it is not a self-conscious political project. Appeals to shared culture are more an acknowledgment of political impotency than hope. The history of modern South Asia is the quest to create identity,differentiation and individuation against a common cultural matrix. This quest led us to set up the self-fulfilling barriers we now find so hard to dismantle. A future for South Asia cannot negate this quest; it has to work through it. The question is: is our psychological investment in those barriers,which we now think secure our identities,diminishing or increasing? Sometimes we seem to acknowledge the limits of these barriers. But the minute we talk about lowering them,a sense of identity vertigo hits us. This is because no one has quite articulated an alternative story that is reassuring. What could be the basis of a new framework? One can take a pragmatic turn and invoke what Shyam Saran,characteristically lucid,has called the advantages of proximity. The region has consistently imposed huge costs on itself by frittering away the advantages of proximity. We would rather enrich Dubai than each other. The intellectual case for the gains from proximity is compelling. But,although seemingly prosaic,a turn to proximity as an organising idea entails three large shifts. It is premised on the idea that we are actually committed to solving problems rather than beggaring one another. Second,the advantages to proximity cannot be realised without going back to the question of norms. Even simple things like trade and investment involve large assumptions about what you will let people do,how you will let them travel,how much presumed trust you repose in them and so forth. Pragmatism is not an alternative to a stuck discourse on norms; it requires an even more radical change. Third,for pragmatism to be sustained,it has to move beyond a project to a project approach. The costs and benefits of cooperation cannot be measured in terms of each intervention. They have to make reference to a larger story towards which we are driving. So we are still struggling to find the right pitch for what a new South Asian imagination should be like. In some ways,this conversation is deeply intertwined with the other messy conversation about what each of our national identities should be like. The dialectic of modern South Asian history was set in place when the region was conceived of as an arena of competition between ethnic groups. One denouement of this competition was Partition. But the shadow of ethnic competition also haunts all the states in South Asia,to varying degrees. It is the principal source from which anxieties over identity consistently trump the possibilities of freedom. We thought we could secure our identities by raising all kinds of barriers: psychological as much as physical. These barriers in turn led to new conflicts. We seem to inchoately recognise that. But these props have become so much of what we are that we are disoriented without them. The question is,how will a conversation about South Asia beyond the current status quo get jump started? Is there even a demand for doing that? The truth of the matter is that South Asia is one of the few regions in the world that still seems so stuck in 1947. A set of deeply entrenched assumptions from that period still haunts us: competition between groups is a zero sum game,territoriality trumps the well-being of people,security requires raising barriers rather than lowering them,the gains from opportunistically using external powers are greater than the gains from settling disputes and not much institutional experimentation is possible. The challenge for the 21st century will not be who can show more fidelity to Patel or Nehru or Jinnah. It will be who can do for our times what they tried to do for theirs,however imperfectly: create a new political imagination. The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi,and a contributing editor for The Indian Express
Source : Click Here

{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment