WEST MEETS EAST - India has much to learn and gain from a European alliance

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By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray sunandadr@yahoo.co.in
  • Published 2.10.10

They were not quoting Jawaharlal Nehru. As Lord Hannay, the former British diplomat and passionate Euroenthusiast, explained, “unity in diversity”, Nehru’s favourite phrase for the wonder that is India of which no European in the room was even aware, is also the European Union’s motto.

The choice of words must be happy coincidence since the concepts developed independently. But can the experience of separate paths to a similar goal be pooled to draw lessons of mutual benefit? That was the purpose of this week’s Oxford Conference on “Federalisms — East and West” with the subtext “India, Europe and North America”. Facing the challenge of ensuring effective democratic participation in the EU’s control mechanism, the organizers sought information on federalism in the United States of America, Canada and India. It was revealing that more speakers were invited from India (even excluding the always incisive Lord Meghnad Desai who is technically British) than from the two Western democracies.

According to a conference note, “Diversity in the sub-continent is at least as great as in Europe; and despite the many shortcomings of government, which Indians themselves so vigorously discuss, it can hardly be denied that they have a lively and effective democratic system, hence a demos in the relevant sense of the term.” It ended with the hope that Europe would make good use of India’s example “in overcoming what may well be one of the most damaging deficiencies of federal development in Europe”.

Truth to tell, the EU is unlikely to find an answer to its most pressing worries by scrutinizing our constituent assembly debates, centre-state revenue manipulations or horse- trading between and within political parties. And the European speakers knew it. Democratic deficit may be a common lament and burden-sharing a common need. But, as Sudipto Mundle, the former director of the Asian Development Bank, explained, India’s macroeconomic management has always been under central control. The problems that can arise if comprehensive fiscal reorganization does not precede an innovation like common currency lie way beyond India’s comprehension because, unlike the US, we have always in modern times been under a single authority.

Thus, an unshared past divides India and the EU. But the demand for an architecture for global governance in a multipolar world might narrow the gulf in the future. Meanwhile, listening to the European speakers, the real story for me was that Europe should seek to learn anything at all from India.

When I first came to Britain in 1954, India may have been remembered with some nostalgia by a few but was generally treated with indifference. The only interested Britons were Labour Party stalwarts who looked on Nehru and Krishna Menon as protégés and India as more a cause than a country. They also rather enjoyed their unorthodox taste, and Fenner Brockway, who famously wore a Gandhi cap in the House of Commons, would joke that when he spoke of Indian independence at Hyde Park Corner, his audience was often only a man and a dog and the dog was usually more attentive. For others, India’s main credential was that it was a member of what was still the British Commonwealth.

Contrary to our fondest dreams, which reverberated even in the buttery of St Antony’s College where the conference was held, Western public opinion did not in those years hold Nehru in anything like the veneration we like to imagine. The towering global leader to whom the international community knelt in gratitude for pioneering a path of peace between the two Cold War contestants is largely a figure of our domestic mythology. Things might have been different if India had not needed massive aid but the combination of recipient and critic prompted sneers that are best forgotten today. The only excuse for dredging up that memory is to underline the significance of the volte-face the conference reflected. It was another indication of the world’s recognition of what India has achieved under Manmohan Singh and of the weight that India can pull globally if its economy continues to boom.

It makes no difference to the West’s revised assessment that the prosperity is so patchy though some participants did draw parallels in private conversation with Tsarist Russia and the Bolshevik revolution. But there was no public deflection from the worship of Mammon. The EU is the “most noble political endeavour in a thousand years of European history” as Sir Peter Sutherland, the Irish lawyer who is chairman of the London School of Economics, grandiosely told the conference. But Sutherland is also chairman of Goldman Sachs International and can therefore be expected to be pragmatic enough to measure the morality that is claimed as the EU’s strongest underpinning, in economic terms. India qualifies.

But do Indians? That, too, is a theme that has been discussed as often as the ethical cost and political perils of gross material inequality. So, too, has the nature of Indian federalism. One of my earliest contributions to the debate posed the question in the 1970s — Is India a nation of many states or a state of many nations? Of course, it can be both. Julio Crespo MacLennan, a young Spanish historian, reminded the conference of nations within territorial Spain, and quoted Juan Linz, “Spain today is a state for all Spaniards, a nation for a large part of the Spanish state, but not a nation for important minorities.” When George Mathews, academic and social worker, spoke in passing of “certain minorities” finding it difficult to rent accommodation in Indian cities, the last part of Linz’s analysis was brought painfully home.

Otherwise, one has to search for points of resemblance between India and the EU of 27 (soon to be 28) sovereign nations groping their way to a future that will wipe out the horrors of past wars. “Never again!” says Sir Michael Palliser, former permanent secretary in Britain’s foreign office, with quavering 88-year-old determination. The European Project, binding together countries with a recent history of conflict, holds lessons for South Asia. But the interesting tidbit of information that the Lok Sabha and the European parliament have approximately the same number of interpreters’ booths does point to a less frivolous demographic commonalty that leads to more fundamental challenges. Like the EU, India must combine pluralist governance with effective decision-making, ensure the supremacy of the people in the midst of confusing multiplicity and take care not to forfeit the loyalty of those who might feel excluded from the economic process.

Common Indian bombast about an empire that stretched from Afghanistan to Java, whose contemporary republican successor has improved on Athenian democracy by empowering helots through the unique participative mechanism of panchayati raj, may not appear to augur well for mutually beneficial cooperation. But India’s founding fathers demonstrated none of this facile insularity when they sought the icing of Ireland’s Directive Principles and America’s Fundamental Rights for the cake of the Government of India Act of 1935, on which the British parliament spent more time than on any other piece of legislation.

Paul Flather, secretary-general of the Europaeum, and his two fellow organizers of the event, need not be disappointed therefore if India’s very different historical lineage does not seem to have much for the EU. Instead, they could profitably turn their attention to the neglected scope for brisk traffic in the other direction. Federal or unitary, modernizing India has much to learn from the EU and much to gain from a European alliance. India is already firmly linked in the east to Singapore and Southeast Asia. Europe could provide what Goh Chok Tong would call the second wing in the West for a balanced take-off. Before that can even be attempted, however, the EU must not only put its house in order but itself also demonstrate more interest in the world’s largest democracy than it has done so far.