The region is at a historic crossroads and needs fresh ideas and visionary leaders
Political and economic developments are closely interlinked. And yet much of the mainstream academic scholarship on South Asia has tended to unfortunately bypass this important linkage. South Asia is often seen either as an economic powerhouse, a conflict-ridden region or as a poverty-stricken region: their significant inter-linkages are often left out by analysts. This is even more surprising considering the fact that the two potential futures of the region are either that of becoming a major engine of global economic growth or of turning out to be the epicentre of global instability. In other words, the nature of economic growth in the region can have a definitive impact on the extent of conflicts in the region and that, in turn, can have a defining impact on the economic growth potential of the region. This calls for nuanced multi-disciplinary analyses and problem solving research into the politico-economic life of South Asia as a dynamic whole.
South Asia: Beyond the Economic Crisis, edited by Amitendu Palit is, therefore, a welcome addition to the body of our knowledge on the politico-developmental trajectories of South Asia. Written in easy prose and full of insights, the central message that the book conveys is unambiguous: South Asia is in urgent need of visionary leaders and fresh ideas because the region is at a historic crossroads.The edited volume, product of a conference organised by the Singapore-based Institute of South Asian Studies, does have some extremely insightful and thought-provoking chapters, especially the ones by Mani Shankar Aiyar, Amitendu Palit, T. V Paul, Dilip Nachane and Rasul Bakhsh Rais.
Mani Shankar Aiyar does an excellent and well-researched job of producing a chapter on the various socio-economic developments in the region. In fact, I am tempted to say that Aiyar does a thorough ‘scholarly' job in terms of substantiating claims with empirical data and challenging established economic wisdom, and his chapter is clearly better than those of most academic scholars in the volume. Aiyar discusses the often ignored subtext of India's (and South Asia's) economic growth story. He makes the evocative argument that “South Asia is prospering; South Asians are not”. Comparing the GDP growth rates and HDI rates of South Asian states, he points out that “while GDP rates have soared from 5 to 9 percent, growth rates in HDI values in South Asia have ranged from a low of just over 0.5 percent to a high of just over 2 percent”. He says that both income inequality as well as the gap in access to basic human needs between the better-off and the worse-off is steadily growing. One of his policy suggestions, non-serious as it may sound to some, is a practical one: we need to have a Ministry of poverty alleviation which incorporates a department of Panchayat Raj to address the issue of inclusive growth and governance. In the chapter on the impact of the global financial crisis on South Asia, Palit argues that the major reason why the impact of global financial crisis was very minimal on the region was because of its “its patchy connectedness to the rest of the globe”. However, Palit argues, that “Domestic economic slowdown inflicted by partial setbacks experienced by trade and financial sectors on account of the financial crisis can create enabling conditions for further accentuation of the existing vulnerabilities” such as “poor governance, high poverty, deficient infrastructure, low literacy, malnutrition” among others.
What is the policy implication of such an empirical finding? If the argument is that the more you are connected to the international financial structures, the more you are likely to suffer in case of a global financial slowdown, then it is not a novel argument; but if some insights can be derived from such an argument about the desirable trajectories of South Asia's integration into the world economy, that would have been food for thought.
In his theoretically sound chapter, Canadian-Indian scholar, T. V Paul focuses on two critical dimensions for great power involvement in South Asia, the region's geo-strategic salience and the presence of several weak states with intense conflict dynamics among them. Pakistani scholar Rasul Bakhsh Rais rightly argues in his chapter on “Religious Extremism and Terrorism in Pakistan” that “the challenge Pakistan faces is where to situate religion in the state or in the society, and what can be an acceptable balance.”
While the book does have some important insights for the reader, it also suffers from a number of inadequacies. The contents of the volume do not come across as belonging to one central theme. While there are some extremely well written chapters in the book, some of them are in the form of speeches delivered at the ISAS conference. Some other seem to be making tall intellectual claims without trying to substantiate them with evidence and arguments. For example, Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, in his four-page chapter, talks about how India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have commonalities and potentials that could be positively developed through a policy of trilateralism. While this may or may not be a pipedream, there is no way he can tell us how it is possible in four pages!
SOUTH ASIA — Beyond the Global Financial Crisis: Edited by Amitendu Palit; Foundation Books, 4381/4 Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 495.