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.
Sep 27, Friday, 2:30 PM, MIT Center for International Studies, Lucian Pye Conference Room
Oct 11, Friday, 2:30 PM, Watson Institute, Brown, Joukowsky Forum
(Senior Fellow on South Asia, Council on Foreign Relations)
Nov 6, Wednesday, 10:00 AM, Lucian Pye Conference Room, MIT Center for International Studies
Nov 22, Friday, 2:30 PM, Weatherhead Center, Harvard, Room S250