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Regions of the mind

The South Asia project founders because we don’t have the imagination for it.

South Asian cooperation seems to be drifting once again between a present that cannot endure and a future that is hard to envision. Despite impressive recent gains in regional cooperation, it is hard to shake off the feeling that the region is threatening to slide back into the past. India-Pakistan borders remain turbulent, though democracy is more institutionalised in the region. But the quality of democracies in the region threatens huge spillover effects. The trajectory of ethnic conflict varies, but it still casts a shadow over all our politics. The common ecological destiny of the region is barely a gleam in the eye. Economic cooperation is still, at best, grudging. Great power machinations tempt us to be too clever by half. There is, at one level, a sense of fatigue with the same old rituals of engagement, the same dramas of one step forward two steps back. There is a yearning for something new. But in comparison with the potential, little seems to move.

There is also the familiar story of bottlenecks: an obdurate military establishment in Pakistan which has no commitment to the pacification of violence; the fragmentation of the Indian political system that makes implementing any strategy difficult; elites in smaller countries attracted by a politics of resentment; bureaucratic inertia. Let us also admit it: in India, there is little imaginative commitment to the region. It is low political priority. We are, after all, the big boys. A compliment by Obama is worth far more than effective dealing with neighbours.

But there is a deeper question. Despite years of talking and some progress on projects, is there an exciting intellectual framework within which a new South Asian architecture can be envisioned? Are we in an intellectual cul de sac? One indication of this is that we don’t even have the right vocabulary to characterise the project we are pursuing in the region. “South Asia” itself is an anodyne term. And perhaps that is an advantage. In terms of objectives, we swing between two terms, neither of which quite captures the task at hand. “Cooperation” is one term. But it is as much a signifier of low aspiration as anything. What is the larger framework in which cooperation makes sense? The other, more expansive term in public discourse is ” regional integration”. But “integration” is a political non-starter. It evokes all kinds of historical baggage and anxiety — integration on whose terms? So how do we name an aspiration for the region beyond the bureaucratese of officials?

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