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.
(Former Foreign Secretary of India)
Friday, February 11, 2021, 10:00 AM, Via Zoom
Join MIT security expert Vipin Narang to discuss Nirupama Rao's recent book, The Fractured Himalaya: India China Tibet 1949-62. A deep dive into understanding India-China relations, the book examines how the past shadows the present in this relationship and shapes current policy options, strongly influencing public debate in India to this day.
Nirupama Rao, a former Foreign Secretary of India, unknots this intensely complex saga of the early years of the India-China relationship. As a diplomat-practitioner, Rao’s telling is based not only on archival material from India, China, Britain and the United States, but also on a deep personal knowledge of China, where she served as India’s Ambassador. In addition, she brings a practitioner’s keen eye to the labyrinth of negotiations and official interactions that took place between the two countries from 1949 to 1962 to ellucidate why it is necessary to understand the trans-Himalayan power play of India and China in the formative period of their nationhoods. Born in Kerala, India, Nirupama Rao, joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1973. During her four-decade-long diplomatic career she held several important assignments. She was India’s first woman spokesperson in the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, the first woman high commissioner from her country to Sri Lanka, and the first Indian woman ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. She served as India’s Foreign Secretary from 2009-2011. At the end of that term, she was appointed India’s Ambassador to the United States where she served for a term of two years from 2011-2013. On her retirement from active diplomatic service, Ambassador Rao entered the world of academics with an appointment as Meera and Vikram Gandhi Fellow at the India Initiative at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Ms. Rao has continued to pursue her academic interests and taught an undergraduate seminar at Brown University titled "India in the World" in 2015 and 2016.
Centre for Policy Research
Friday, March 4, 2022, 12:00PM, Via Zoom
Dr. Neelanjan Sircar is a Senior Visiting Fellow at CPR and Assistant Professor at Ashoka University. His research interests include Indian political economy and comparative political behavior with an eye to Bayesian statistics, causal inference, social network analysis, and game theory. Mr Sircar’s recent work focused on state level elections in India through both data work and ethnographic methods. He is particularly interested in understanding theoretic principles that undergird the decision-making processes of voters in India, which can shed light on democratic practice in the developing world more generally. He also works on projects characterising the social connections between citizens in India and their local brokers and leaders, as well as how these local brokers and leaders, both rural and urban, make decisions.
Sircar is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. He received a bachelor's degree in applied mathematics and economics from UC Berkeley in 2003 and a PhD in political science from Columbia University in 2014.
(University of York)
Friday, March 25, 2022, 12:00 PM, Via Zoom
Sanjoy Bhattacharya is Co-Director of the History Department’s Centre for Global Health Histories, Professor in the History of Medicine, a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator and the Head of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Global Health Histories at the University of York. Sanjoy specialises in the health, medical, political and social history of nineteenth and twentieth century South Asia, as well as the history and contemporary workings of international and global health organisations, and their programmes around the world.
Sanjoy has always worked in inter-disciplinary ways and within inter-sectoral settings, and remains actively involved in health policy research and evaluation work in national and international agencies. He is a co-founder of the World Health Organization’s Global Health Histories project (GHH), which works across the WHO HQ in Geneva, WHO Regional Offices in Copenhagen and Cairo, and multiple WHO Country Offices. As an official and audited WHO activity, GHH carries out research to assist policy initiatives and public engagement at WHO member state level, and organises a regular programme of seminars and workshops. This work, carried out over two decades, has consistently created impactful partnerships globally, involving WHO frameworks, other UN agencies, national and local governments, NGOs, Civil Society Organisations and universities.
Friday, May 6, 2022, 12:00 PM, Via Zoom
Prior to joining Columbia University, he was a Fellow at the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance at Princeton University. He received his PhD, with departmental and university distinction, in political science from Yale University, and BA, magna cum laude, in economics and political science (honors) from Williams College.
Gaikwad’s research focuses on two types of competition that recur in the political arena: economic contestation and identity conflict. A main line of inquiry studies how cultural divisions interact with economic rivalries when actors contest distributive policies. A second stream of work investigates how conflicts of interest between economic agents influence the policymaking process. He analyzes competing interests as a theoretical lens to study questions related to representation, policy change, and development.