Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Economy, Politics and Governance

I’m no Jean Monnet but…: Thoughts on regional integration and state consolidation in South Asia

A case has been made by scholars better versed than myself, and continues to be so made, for a ‘South Asian Community’, centred on a single market. With a region that, with the remarkable exception of India, remains in impasse, such a regional integrative framework is ideal and essentially practical on various levels. Let us pull back from more specific observances to make some exploratory effort that lays the foundation for an advanced goal of regional integration. What dilemmas does one face when proposing to work on South Asia? That the region, belonging to that notorious grouping of the Third World, has remained handicapped by issues of poverty, development, ethnic riot, gender inequalities and infant constitutions is a popular representation. It is not contended here that these are not realities of the South Asian situation. The anchor for this examination lies in the simple statement that, in order for the South Asian region to draw upon its extensive resources and become a dominant player in a rapidly globalised world- an impetus must be laid upon state consolidation and fortification through which home-grown solutions to domestic issues can be met with and readily addressed, without further dependence and need for empowerment from external actors. Certainly, many states in South Asia remain in constitutional and economic infancy. The region has an odd, lopsided economic characteristic that, all at once, includes extreme poverty and high development. This is partly due to the fact that the distribution of gains from various economic agreements has so far benefited only the developed of the Asian nations whilst the least developed bear the cost of the development. However, instability at the level of high politics and ethnic conflations remain contributory factors to inflation and dire economic and development circumstances. The imposition on the structures of these states at multiple levels, by numerous actors and social processes provides a smorgasbord of entry points not only for analysis but also recommendation. The additional dimension to this is that these are states that are grappling not only with basic economic and political issues but also have been, since conception innately multicultural (as opposed to many industrialized nations that have only been forced to deal with immense multicultural forces comparatively later).

The broader question is to answer, simply, how will these states then perform this consolidation? That the empowerment must come from within is crucial. That the focus must begin with the human resource is also key- the region is home to one-fifth of the world’s inhabitants and is arguably the most densely populated region on earth. The labour force (which is undeniably any state’s greatest resource), while governed by a dominant ideology is in and of itself split by a plurality of ideology that extends itself not only from an institutional apparatus but also along social factors that move outside of the limiting spectrum of a class based analysis- on lines of gender, ethnicity, caste, religion, geography, education and vocation. It is then important to identify where power is sourced from specifically in a region that is characterized by plurality of identity, governance and institution, the recognition of the target points for state-building and consolidation. The need to have control over the human resource and its consciousness is then fundamental to any possibility of state strength. As argued before, the dimensions to this resource are not elementally binary between upper and lower classes but stem from a host of colourful social segregations. And so the grand South Asian narrative has always had at its core this struggle with understanding a plurality of identity and consciousness. This consciousness has been related to and deconstructed primarily via the links to nationalist thought, and the aftermath of the colonial era; to the distance between the elites and the ‘non-elites; to peasant uprisings, gender empowerment and the need to recognise unprotected labour working on estate lines. This has been done, and yet the region, as aforementioned, remains in limbo.

If it is on ideology and labour forces that we lay emphasis, then it follows that our quest for state building must understand linkages to ideology and the power of knowledge. Writing on the topic of nationalist thought in the colonial world in 1985, Partha Chatterjee quotes Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay on Sankhya philosophy, noting that knowledge in the Hindu or, more expressly, non-Western context is not power but salvation. How quickly then does an interrogative arise that if knowledge can thereby salvage does that not connote that it has power beyond ordinary quantification? And so then the ‘Western’ conception of power as knowledge, and the ‘Eastern’ philosophy of knowledge as salvation arguably blend into one another. We have, then, an impression that ideation, which stems from and also reproduces knowledge is the source of power, and it then follows naturally that knowledge is the elemental source of power in the political [social] world. And power, in and of itself, and so defined by its sourcing from knowledge is both relational and structural. The possession of the knowledge factor will make one unit more powerful in relation to the other and it will then have structural, or in the definition taken, coercive (to use some “Strange” sense), power. Indeed, both Western and non-Western discourse are central debates about power and knowledge as power, with the variable being only the unit of primary analysis; whether it is the state, the market, or the strength of a social movement or other. We essentially seek those normative ideals of freedom and enlightenment through the application of this knowledge. We look for civilisations understood as ‘mature’ and fully developed when they are governed by reason, and within this ever-globalising world, ideology and knowledge (power) become more paramount in the advancement of society. Therefore, as we continue our reflections and work on the South Asian narrative it becomes vital to take a directive from an ultimate concern with ideology and knowledge and the fact that a plurality of apparatuses (a la Althusser) that control ideological constructs do exist cannot be ignored. At the risk of repetition, power will thereby always be sourced from a control over ideology and knowledge, and that this control can be held simultaneously by many- because the evolution of the political, and the phenomenon of globalization has allowed for the proliferation of various actors. However, rule by many, the diffusion of this very power has a direct correlation with instability, crisis and conflict and it is necessary therefore, for the survival of the state (as it is the state that one seeks here to empower) as the central administrative focus to recall and consolidate this power. Such fortification and concentration on one body ensures –to a significant degree- that regulations over domestic policy and economic stability remain; such core base strength and political constancy for a country at a domestic level ensures that it is able to engage itself globally in a more aggressive manner and through this assert for itself more reckoning in global governance. State formation is inextricably linked to social relations and the transformative processes of world and national order wrought thereby.

  • Anupama,
    Could you please explain (again) in layman’s words, how and on what basis you link knowledge to power and in what terms (do you mean political, economic, social power, enlightenment?)

    Also with regards to the following statement:
    “However, rule by many, the diffusion of this very power has a direct correlation with instability, crisis and conflict and it is necessary therefore, for the survival of the state (as it is the state that one seeks here to empower) as the central administrative focus to recall and consolidate this power.”
    …could you please explain the academic thesis, practical example or historical precedent on which you base this statement?

  • DVR

    Very perceptive and thought provoking. Thanks for posting; enjoyed reading it

  • Anupama Ranawana


    Thank you for your questions. Firstly, I am a scholar at a very nascent stage of my intellectual journey. This piece is a necessary means of sounding out certain thought patterns that are flitting around in my head. Any resulting lack of clarity therefore is possibly on account of the need to better shape my own ideas. However, here goes:

    1- You ask me on what basis I link knowledge to power. A difficult question to ask without much meandering. For me however, Knowledge has come to mean the control over/influence of ideas and thereby concrete social power. There is an upwards movement in the arcs of influential power where knowledge, beliefs and political ideology pervade and thereby control policy decisions and governs choices made regarding production, finance, and security. This has only perpetuated with the advent of and rapid acceleration of technology and globalisation. The power over knowledge (the posessor of knowledge) is able to define and determine the structures of the given situation, within which other actors, and their related political and economic institutions are directed to operate.

    2- As for your second question, I see no reason to make any elaborate explanation. That the nature of the state is largely in question because of the proliferation of a host of other actors is a much talked of thing and no new thesis. It can in fact be answered in this one-word example: globalisation. In my work, as i continue it , I advocate that states must reclaim this power. If the global financial crisis has show us anything, it is that states had to be called in to more or less ‘save the day’ when a giant unregulated open market scheme that was in the hands of various other actors brought the financial world to its knees. Read your Yeats, things fall apart when the center (or to take poetic licence) when there is no center to hold it together. I hope this is fairly explicit?

  • c.w

    Well said Anupama, and I enjoyed reading your responses to the first commentor’s questions.

  • Anupama,
    I will read my Yeats – Thank you. I may never have rid myself of Kipling’s delusions (“no man is an island”) if not for your recommendation.
    Please don’t take my comments personally or my questions as a challenge on your scholarly authority. I will ask no more questions to save myself – if not you – further confusion.
    I respect what “knowledge” has come to mean to you. However (since you are an aspiring intellectual yourself) please try to entertain the prospect that ‘knowledge’ does not seek to ‘control ideas’. Consider the possibility that the “influence” of knowledge is the stimulation, inspiration and incubation of ideas. Perhaps if knowledge led us to “concrete social power” we should be governed today by the finest intellectuals… but wait – we are indeed… even our Labour minister has an honorary Doctorate!!!
    Humour aside, in the world I live in, sadly, violence and monetary wealth is a far more direct and assured means to gain “concrete social power”.
    I apologise for not being endowed with the time or the will to engage you in a broader discussion about globalisation and the financial crisis. Perhaps India would have done better to reign in Ambhani, Tata and other entrepreneurs and centralised their initiative in it’s (very competent and uncorrupted) “state” – whatever “state” means. I will remain grateful that the United Nations, European Union, United States of America (ok bad example that last one!) in terms of political power, and the Internet in terms of technological power bear testament for decentralisation of power, and every monopoly and every dictatorship – be it benevolent or tyrannical – bear testament against centralisation of power.
    (Perhaps I misunderstood you. Perhaps you acknowledge that the “state’ is the people and for the survival of each constituent member of the state – that the focus of every citizen should be to recall it from places where it is concentrated and consolidate it within their own empowerment? I wish!)
    Here’s wishing you the best and hoping that further into their intellectual journeys, scholars will learn to open their eyes to reality as well and see and be able to understand the world in which they actually live, and in sufficient depth to be able to communicate their understanding with simplicity and clarity – and not seek out refuges for superficiality in the dark caves of convolution.

  • {“There is an upwards movement in the arcs of influential power where knowledge, beliefs and political ideology pervade and thereby control policy decisions and governs choices made regarding production, finance, and security.”}

    This is classic! I have no idea what it means, but it makes me laugh.

    I wish I could also see this “upwards movement” in some perceivable or metaphysical arc. Perhaps I will, when I read Yeats, or perhaps when I get to visit this fantastic world of upward movements and arcs! 😀

    I cannot claim to know better than a scholar, but only share what I do know. Knowledge, beliefs and political ideology have no firm platform, or perceived benefit (in this world – Earth) to have sufficient influence let alone control over policy decisions regarding production, finance, and security. The majority of those decisions are constrained by economics and at least guided (regrettably less often these days) by the principles of law. Those policy decisions are influenced heavily by interests of powerful people who are concerned with the accumulation of wealth and more power, lobbyists, labour unions and interests of international forces such as trading partners, donors, military powers and (surprisingly enough) even pure nonsense.

    Not that some people in power, or some of those aspiring to be so, are incapable of conforming to ideals and knowledge – but such inclinations don’t cause in any “upwards movement” – at least not in their electable ar(c)s!

  • If i understand you properly Anupama, you argue for state consolidation as a means by which 1) South Asia (or South Asian countries) can raise its leverage within the global political community and 2) solve its own problems that are a result of instability resulting from conflict. .

    If this needs to be accepted one needs to hear from you as to what your conception of a State is. And i am sure that it goes beyond the conception of a nation state. But I am worried by the scope of the following statement:

    “..rule by many, the diffusion of this very power has a direct correlation with instability, crisis and conflict and it is necessary therefore, for the survival of the state (as it is the state that one seeks here to empower) as the central administrative focus to recall and consolidate this power.”

    Does always rule by many have to be associated with instability? How does one consolidate the State then? Do we need to monopolise and make it rule by one as in Sri Lanka? This is worrisome.

    I think India is an amazing laboratory where these ideas can be tested. Despite severe shortcomings i think India has been the best in handling ‘rule by many’ in the region and not allowing such a rule by many to seriously hamper State consolidation. The growing influence of regional parties in national politics, the rise of the dalits as a political force – have these consolidated the ‘Indian’ ‘nation’ or fragmented it? Hasn’t India’s importance in the international arena steadily increased despite the age of coalition politics? The US-India nuclear deal and the domestic politics that was worked around it provides for a classic case study and i think the resulting slowness in the process and the debate that it generated were good for India. In fact India itself is a conglomeration of different nations (state-nations rather than nation state) and the larger political structure of India possibly has an instrumental value to pursue the common goals of these different nations.

  • Nicolai

    Man oh man I have a headache.
    So who is going to translate?
    The best I could get out of any of this is that two of you told each other to f-off!

  • Anupama Ranawana

    Citizen- a note before I make full reply, I am not a scholar, but as I said, just beginning my journey and this piece was a means to an end. I was not personally affronted by your remarks but very glad to have someone read and comment on them.

    onwards to your further comments- well it seems that we stand on two sides of a many sided debate, and we can go around in circles on this, i am sure. Although you raise another interesting thought of conformity and knowledge/power. Oh dimensions.

    I will make one note here on my understanding of the state and the nation, as Guru has also commented on it. I know, Guru, that we have gone back and forth a little on this in another forum. And yes, you are right- I go beyond ‘nation-state’ in this simple sense. I see it as a contradiction in terms to couple nation with state as I feel that nation requires adherence to one-ness and unity and a common cultural identity. A state is a mechanism of governance and must remain so- an impartial presence that is protector/provider having an identity that is more or less economic and territorial. Especially within a multicultural scenario, the state must be seperate or ethnic conflations and marginalization occurs – and as we have seen in the case of our beloved Sri Lankan state- becomes quite brutal. And this is only part of the answer. However, since both of you have seen fit to comment on the issue of a plurality of actors- I think perhaps it is necessary for me to make another contribution to groundviews, so watch this space!