The economic and strategic relevance of South Asia has enormously grown in recent years. While India’s economic story and South Asia’s struggle with terror are often noted, there is a great deal more to the region, which is of intellectual relevance.
Consider some of the “big” questions of politics, political economy and security, on which the South Asian region in general, and India in particular, offer engaging perspectives:
(1) Historically speaking, universal franchise democracy came to the West after the industrial revolution had been completed. In India, universal franchise was born at a time when the country was overwhelmingly agrarian and manufacturing constituted a mere 2–3% of GDP. What can we surmise about the simultaneous pursuit of economic transformation and democratic deepening from India’s experience? India-China comparisons are directly relevant here. More generally, as Africa and other Asian countries contemplate economic future, is democracy to be viewed as a political framework within which economic development ought to be pursued?
(2) Historically, manufacturing has always led an economic revolution. It is as true of Europe and the US as of East Asia. In India, high-tech services, primarily export-based, have led the boom, and are now wrestling with an international economic downturn. What are the larger lessons of a services-led economic transformation?
(3) India’s democracy has functioned amidst one of the most hierarchical social orders the world has witnessed: viz., caste system. Has the equality principle of democracy undermined the caste system, or have caste inequalities changed the script of Indian democracy, forcing it to differ significantly from the Western democratic experience?
(4) Serious regional disparities mark virtually the entire region. In India, compared to the northern and eastern states, the southern and western states have not only boomed economically, but their human development performance has been markedly superior. In Pakistan, Punjab continues to be far ahead of the other regions. How does one explain such variations? Are there larger social science theories at stake? Can newer theories be developed?
(5) The shadow of security over politics and economics is now dark and deep. Why has terrorism taken such roots in Pakistan? What is it about the polity or society of Pakistan that has provided a home to terrorism? Given how terrorism works, can it spread to India in a significant way?
(6) The security situation in Afghanistan is now the center of international attention. How does one understand the security problems of Afghanistan? Why is establishing order such a monumental task in Afghanistan and also a tall task in Pakistan?
(7) Security has a so-called softer side. Human rights of some minority groups have been compromised for the sake of “nation-building” all over the region. This is true even in India, which has functioned as a democracy for over six decades. With far greater intensity, the same issues crop up in Sri Lanka, once the most vigorous democracy in the developing world. Why have South Asian democracies found it hard to develop more robust human rights regimes? Is it a South Asian problem, or a more generic problem of democracies faced with insurgencies?
(8) In a related vein, raging debates over the rule of law have taken place all over South Asia. In India, the debate has also covered the role of public interest litigation. Why have South Asian societies struggled so hard to establish a reliable legal regime? Is it simply a function of low incomes and unstable security environments? Or, do cultural and sociological norms seriously clash with the rule of law? Do we have theories that tell us how rule of law got institutionalized in the richer countries? Can those theories be used for understanding South Asia?
(9) South Asia as a region has been one of the original homes of the NGO movement in the world. Some of the world’s most respected non-governmental organizations have been working in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India. What can we learn about what kinds of NGOs succeed and what types fail? Is the learning region-specific, or is it portable?
(10) India’s democratic longevity has coexisted with substantial party fractionalization. Over the last twenty years, Delhi has been ruled by coalition governments. Such coalitions have normally marked polities that have proportional representation, not first-past-the-post systems, which tend to produce fewer parties in power. How do we understand India’s party fractionalization?
The list above is not exhaustive, but these are some of the issues that this annual seminar series, concentrating on contemporary South Asian politics and political economy, will investigate. Some sessions of the seminar will be entirely academic, but other sessions will conceptualized as a Habermasian public sphere, where academics alone do not monopolize discourse. Rather, public figures — from politics, business, journalism, security and NGO sector– and academic researchers and students will engage in a sustained conversation. Knowledge, inevitably, has many facets.
This seminar is a joint effort of, and is funded by, four institutions of the Boston-Providence area: the Brown-India Initiative at the Watson Institute at Brown, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the South Asia Institute both at Harvard and the MIT Center for International Studies. It will be co-directed by faculty working on different aspects of South Asian politics and political economy in each of these universities. The location of the seminar will alternate between Brown, Harvard and MIT. A detailed program for the series can be found below.
(University of California, Merced)
Friday, February 5, 2021, 11:00 AM, Via Zoom
Adi Dasgupta is assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Merced. He completed his PhD at Harvard University and was previously a postdoc at Stanford University. Dasgupta's research is in comparative politics, political economy, and political-economic history/development. He works in three areas: (i) the political economy of democratization; (ii) the role of technological change in political development; (iii) the development of state capacity. Much of his work is on rural India, including his book project on the political consequences of the green revolution. Dasgupta is also building a lab on the political economy of agriculture and rural societies (PEARS). His articles appear in the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Economic History, and International Organization and have received awards from the APSA Democracy and Autocracy and Science, Technology and Environmental Politics sections.
Friday, February 26, 2021, 11:00am, Via Zoom
Nirvikar Jassal is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University. His research focuses on gender, sexual violence, ethnic conflict and hate crime, and policing with a regional focus on South Asia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the American Political Science Review, Asian Survey and Journal of Asian Studies. He completed his PhD from the University of California—Berkeley in 2020, and previously worked at the Council on Foreign Relations and New York City government.
(University of Notre Dame)
Friday, March 26, 2021, 11:00 AM, Via Zoom
Susan L. Ostermann is Assistant Professor of Global Affairs at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. She completed her Ph.D. in the Travers Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. She also holds a law degree from Stanford Law School and worked for several years as a practicing litigator, focusing on class actions and intellectual property disputes.
Employing both quantitative and qualitative methodology, Ostermann seeks to understand why we sometimes see compliance with regulations in very unlikely places: those in which the state is weak and actors, be they individuals or organizations, have strong incentives to break the law. Her dissertation develops the concept of regulatory pragmatism to explain variation in strategies used by both the Nepali and Indian states to secure compliance with conservation, education and child labor regulations under challenging conditions.
While Professor Ostermann’s research focuses mainly on regulatory compliance in South Asia, she is broadly interested in understanding norms and how they change. Towards this end, she has published papers on inter-caste marriage and the role of skin color in Indian politics. Her current projects are designed to explore the historical roots of conservatism in Indian political thought, the development and expansion of the Indian Election Commission, and variation in sex-ratios throughout the subcontinent. She has also published work on the Indian bureaucracy, state capacity in South Asia, and the 2014 Indian general election.
Ostermann’s work has been published in Asian Survey, Studies in Comparative International Development, the Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Politics, Studies in Indian Politics and Law & Policy.
Friday, April 9, 2021, 11:00 AM, Via Zoom
Tanushree Goyal is a fourth and final year PhD candidate at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom. Goyal is also an academy scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, Harvard University. Starting in Fall 2022, she will join Princeton University as an Assistant Professor in Politics and International Affairs. Her research interests lie at the intersections of comparative politics, gender, and development with a regional focus in South Asia. Goyal's dissertation uses natural, survey and quasi-experiments to examine important questions in the field of representation and accountability and is set in the context of the World's largest democracy - India. It shows how female politicians affect change by influencing intra-party politics in the context of India's urban cities. Female politicians incorporate women as intermediaries and establish cross-electoral level networks to influence political campaigns and party decisions. This "representation from below" fundamentally alters party politics and democracy for good.