India, the coming together federal state

India is a state-nation rather than a nation-state. Discuss.

Which is what Professor Ashutosh Varshney did during a discussion organized by the Asia Society Mumbai on Thursday, with me as a moderator.

First, what’s the difference? Nation-states were largely a 19th European construct. They were top-down affairs with one region often subduing others and imposing religion, language and often culture. France and Germany are exemplars. This was often violent and largely done in a non-democratic environment.

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. So, so far, is India.

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 centre and the states are not a zero- sum game. If New Delhi is a mess, it doesn’t mean the state governments are going to be beneficiaries. “Both centre 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 Centre 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 per cent or so of Indians are proud or very proud to be Indian and only about 20 percent put their regional identity ahead of their national one. The first is beaten only by the US and Australia. The second is remarkable for any country of its poverty, diversity and democracy.

Varshney attributes this to many factors like the army, the bureaucracy, the freedom struggle, cricket and Bollywood. But such nascent nationalism can only grow as India urbanises and it’s middle class grows. I suspect its best corporations could also be icons for this new Indian sentiment.

India’s federalism, once shown to work, could well prove a model for countries like Indonesia or Myanmar or Pakistan with similar diversities. All three, one might add, are countries where the military have or are engaged in large-scale operations against swathes of their own country to bring them 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 percent of the population.

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