Thursday, August 9, 2012

Letter to Prof. Sumit Ganguly

Hi Prof. Sumit,
I am a .... I happened to listen to your teleconference talk at U. Arizona.

While you had addressed a few key issues that will be of prominence in the next few years in the Indian subcontinent, I believe more of the "unpredictables" will what will dictate the future trajectory of the subcontinent. This is because the "predictables" such as political paralysis (aka) coalition politics, economic inter-dependencies, parleying on the fractious borders, identity conflicts of various stripes, etc., shall continue into the foreseeable future. To someone born in 1980 (such as me), these transactions seem to have lasted for as long as India has existed and with the bureaucratic polity in the picture and that which shall continue into the near future, I see no dramatic changes barring a few twists and turns. These few twists and turns are most likely going to be forced upon the bureaucrats because of the unpredictables rather than because of a systemic shift in how the bureaucracy promulgates vision documents and policies based on them.

1) On top of this list in my opinion will be the deluge of cross-border migrants, the consequent demographic shifts and identity-based tensions that this will engender. This will be true of Bangladesh where the encroachment of areable land by rising sea levels and increased soil salinity along with the pressures of a rising population and lack of adequate potable water supplies will make the pre-1971 scenario a walk in the park. This will also be true of Bhutan and Nepal where the cultivability of land was never a strong point to begin with. A mirror image scenario of rising sea levels will also unfold in Maldives and parts of Sri Lanka. Then there is the case of an impossible to fathom Pakistani implosion (if not in physical existence, but in terms of hope and aspirations for the peoples) which is orders of magnitude more difficult than the other neighbors. Last, internal migration of people in India from the coasts will also put pressure on the interior. As the "big brother" (at least in vision, if not in capabilities) of the region, the responsibility will fall on India to accommodate these economic migrants without pushing them into the sea or letting them perish. In my opinion, the challenge of accommodating such new identities without fixing them in a zero-sum game with existing identities will be the single-most important challenge occupying the minds of bureaucrats in the next fifty to hundred years. The contours of the Indian equivalent of the New Deal will determine how India visualizes itself and how India will be pitted against other contenders for the battle of the hearts and minds.

2) In terms of identity matters, we already see a rising middle class in India that is not afraid to assert itself in terms of identity matters. Disparagingly called "Internet Hindus" by various sections of the media, they are only a reflection of the enormous contradictions in the state of affairs on the ground in India today. While you mentioned the rising Hindu-Muslim discords under a possible NDA/BJP regime, they themselves only reflect the gross situation on the ground. A Hindu-Muslim discord need not be invented (let alone by a BJP/NDA regime), it already exists. The BJP/NDA can fish in troubled waters because such troubled waters exist. In independent India's existence so far, the existence of such a discord has often been denied even in the light of massive evidences to the contrary (e.g., decline of Hindu population in Pakistan and Bangladesh, Direct Action Day riots, Naokhali, Moplah riots, etc.). Often times, the discord is proclaimed to be the imagination of the Hindutvavadis (e.g., whitewashing of the Mughal/Sultanate regimes and how it was a rule of law for the Hindus). And many times, it has been soothed by sops of different kinds to both parties (Shah Bano vs. Mandal politics), or has been ignored completely. How does the polity intend to create a smooth atmosphere for its subsections by denial, fabrication and ignoring? As one of my mentors used to say, "Fundamental difficulties are invariant under reformulation," and the fundamental difficulty of ignoring the presence of a 800 lb. gorilla in the room of Hindu-Muslim discord will not help us find an answer to this problem.

And as India slowly unshackles itself out of the enormous economic trough of the last few hundred years, the dichotomies and contradictions of the secular establishment that gets the goat of this rising middle class will become a major problem that has to be assuaged lest it be channelized into destructive forces. While the Indian political class has showed a tremendous ability to defuse tensions of many different types, whether it can rise up to the challenge of coming to terms with its own self-contradictions in a self-referential way is something to be seen.

3) Identity in itself is a vestige for commandeering the limited resources under a cloud of fairness. Accommodating the new arrivals as well as the existing set will require a scaling up of resources: education, employment opportunities, water, energy, food -- all out of thin air. We already see the contours of an inter-connected subcontinental electricity grid. Slowly, but steadily, a not-so well-mapped economic union also seems likely to emerge. Will these unions be sufficient to scale up the resources on the scale that is needed by the new India? If they are not scaled up sufficiently faster, we will see identity-based politics that will lead to conflict situations that cannot be avoided.

More than the predictables, it is these unpredictables that will matter the most.




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