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The idea of South Asia

| by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

[Speech delivered at the conference on ‘South Asia Economic Integration: A Strategic and Economic Appraisal’ co-organized by the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS), the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), and the Regional Program SAARC of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, recently]

( July 16, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I want to set out four ideas in ascending importance, rather like Matryoshka dolls. But before I do so, I would like to make some observations about two or three points that were made in the discussion so far which are symptomatic of the range of problems that we face.

Professor Akmal Hussain spoke of the need and the possibility of a common policy towards non state terrorist movements. Siddarth Vardharajan raised the issue yesterday of China’s trade in the region, observing that from a purely economic or consumer point of view it doesn’t make sense because it would be cheaper for us to trade within the region. His question was "how come?" High Commissioner Tariq Qarim in his disaggregation of the SAARC road-map spoke about the smaller units and clubbed South India and Sri Lanka as possible sub-units or sub-systems.

To me, these eminently reasonable proposals, and the failure of these proposals so far, take us to the heart of the problem. Why is there is no cooperation between states of the issue of non- state terrorist actors? There the answer is twofold. It is not only because the ‘deep states’ within the states consider these non state actors as strategic or at least as tactical tools, but also because of public opinion. Public opinion in Pakistan will not let go of Kashmir. Public opinion in Tamilnadu will not let go of the Sri Lankan Tamil issue— and therefore together with the uptick in the democratic participation, you also have the problem of domestic constituencies in a competitive multi party frame work. This is the problem.

Why is it that South India and Sri Lanka do not consider themselves as compatible economic partners? Because South India is seen in Sri Lanka as probably the worst of all possible enemies and therefore the Sri Lankan consensus has always been to offset South India by cultivating relationships with New Delhi.

Why is it that there seems to be an open door for Chinese goods while it would make more sense to trade within the region or even the sub-region? The answer there is that even in our policy making circles there is the equivalent of what some of us used to adhere to at one time: ‘dependency theory’ in political economy. But today in South Asia among several segments of the policy intelligentsia here in Sri Lanka, the main trouble or the potential threat is seen as, or as emanating from India. Therefore there is an ambiguity: do we integrate or do we delink? Do we delink or do we try to balance? So this is why, what seems to be sense, what seems to be self-evident is hardly so. "What then is to be done?" is the famous question of Lenin (and Cherneyshevky before him).

This is where my four step presentation or matryoshka doll-like set of suggestions come in. The first step is associated with Prof. Joseph Nye’s notion of soft power and my suggestion is that we explore the possibilities of treating South Asia as potentially a single soft power space. Now we do know that soft power is said to have two components. One is economics. I’m not at this moment concentrating on the economic, as it is too problematic for the reasons I’ve stated earlier. I’m talking about the other aspect of soft power; of culture, of ideas, of attractiveness. There I think what we need is the thickening of the soft power dimension of South Asia as a single unit; the area taken as a single space. A thickening which would permit soft power to get to the point where it does not offset hard power, because it cannot, but where a new soft power programming as it were, permits hard power contradictions to be perceived and resolved differently, so that as Joseph Nye has suggested, the combination of hard power and soft power can culminate in ‘smart power’. So we can eventually think in terms of a ‘South Asian smart power’, starting with treating South Asia and working towards South Asia as a single soft power space and thickening the soft power dimension of South Asian co-operation.

This leads me to the second of my matryoshka dolls and here this set of ideas is associated with the name of Antonio Gramsci, political thinker and revolutionary of the 1920’s and 1930’s in Italy. Gramsci was faced with the problem that frontal assault on the state just did not seem to prove successful. His studies led in to conclude that unlike the East by which he meant primarily Russia where the state loomed large, in Western Europe there were complex trenches and fortifications which Hegel termed civil society. Gramsci urged that one had to accumulate cultural, ethical, moral, intellectual hegemony, over time in a kind of a protracted siege that culminated in the displacement or the shift of the state.

Now I would apply that to the problems of South Asian integration. If the state, the state bureaucracy and the perception of states of their national interest, are proving slow to change; if they remain in what is essentially a zero sum game mode of strategizing, then one has to shift emphasis to the complex strengths and fortifications that constitute a civil society. And here I do not mean a simple change between civil society actors; not at all. That is in fact a dumbing down of what Gramsci had said. I’m arguing for far more classically Gramscian pathway or strategy for South Asian integration; one which envisages multifarious complex set of moves where you build up the social forces – you build up the consciousness, and you cumulatively culminate in strata of the educated. You push the idea forward in the media, in academia, of a South Asia. There cannot be "South Asian integration", without an idea and an ideal of South Asia. So South Asia is and has to be first imagined, and that is not been done.

The idea of Europe had already been imagined decades if not centuries before what we now know to be the European Union came in to be. The idea was around. It had been subsumed under nationalism. And when the nationalisms had hurled themselves at each other twice, in the first half of the 20th century and so much destruction has resulted, the idea was still left, and it is the shards of these ideas that came together to form the foundation of Europe.

So we first have to have an idea of South Asia. This is not something that one can do at a seminar. And here I must caution, with all due deference to the think tanks; but the greatest ideas of history of the world never came out of think tanks, I mean thinking usually did not come out of think tanks. Thinking took place, as you know, by writers, intellectuals, in universities, before the universities at theological centers, in cafes if you like, in prisons; much of the finest political thinking I would say for example the of Gramsci, came out of prison. So the thinking has to take place not only, or perhaps not even primarily in the think tanks. But thinking has not yet taken place. What you have are discussions of the level of policy, at the level of economic plans, at the level of technical cooperation. While I profoundly respect those precisely because it is the economic thinking that will most directly benefit the people, I detect what used to be called "economistic reductionism", in the thinking on and of South Asia. We need an idea of South Asia that can grasp the imagination; that can be attractive and that can have appeal. That has not happened. Without an idea of South Asia there won’t be a South Asian project and without a South Asian project there will be no South Asian integration. Now this South Asian project, this idea of South Asia and the eventual accession to intellectual, moral and ethical leadership of this idea, is a pre-requisite for what we have been striving.

I would ally with the name of Antonio Gramsci, that with a much later; several decades later, a thinker - a young man who died tragically; Nicos Poulantzas who pointed out that it is not civil society vs. the state or people’s movements vs. the state, but that the state itself is crosscut and traversed by contradictions, by different perspectives, different sub-projects. There are the reformists and the conservatives and therefore there has to be a strategy to understand the permeability of society and state and that the idea of South Asia can and must begin to grasp the imagination in both society and state; not in one to the exclusion of the other. Then we move to that point of social and intellectual accumulation which permits the leap to the reality of South Asia as a community of peoples and states. So a Gramscian-Poulantzian perspective is my second Matryoshka doll.

The third is Hegel. Now I wondered semi-humorously in our proceedings earlier today, as to whether the history in South Asia moves cyclically or in some way other than as it is said to move in the West. Well we do know that Hegel had his own variations, his own answers. On the one hand, he did think that there was a direction in history with a logic of widening circles of freedom which characterized the direction of transformation. But Hegel also transcended the notion of a cyclical movement with the idea of a spiral. We did talk about a moment, specially I think High Commissioner Tariq Qarim quite rightly identified 1930 to 1947 as the period of a South Asian cosmopolitanism. We associated it yesterday with the writings of Rabindranath Tagor, as emblematic of his consciousness. At the moment of independence or sometime after it, the South Asian cosmopolitan consciousness disaggregated into national projects which then collided. But perhaps it is possible not exactly to replicate or reproduce, but to strive for reappearance of that consciousness at a higher level of what is called a dialectical spiral where the best aspects of that South Asian cosmopolitanism reappear while the negatives have been critiqued and negated. So it is the transcendence of aspects of our present reality and the carrying over at a different level of the best aspects of South Asian proto-consciousness of 1930-’47 that would enable us to reconstruct the mentalities that are necessary for the contemporary South Asian project to succeed.

While I take the point that Mr. RMB Senanayaka made about the breakup or the disappearance or the displacement of Westernized elite, it is also that Westernized elite that either opened the Pandora’s box for the nativistic xenophobic elements (as did SWRD Bandaranaike) or were so discredited by their rootless comprador cosmopolitanism that those xenophobic elements took centre stage by default and displacement.

So what you need is a new consciousness which won’t just abandon the national interest, but will combine a smart notion of hard power and a ‘smart power’ notion of the national interest. We need a consciousness of concentric circles; of being national, South Asian and citizens of the world. Amartya Sen one of our finest products has already been talking in those terms, so I won’t dwell on that further.

My fourth Matryoshka is Plato. Why? I believe it is a problem of philosophy. Plato famously argued that philosophers must become rulers or rulers must become philosophers. In our region, we need a new, modern and yet inclusive philosophy. We require a South Asian elite that is not elitist but inclusive. You must be an elite, but not elitist. Until this mentality becomes accessible and internalized by policy makers, we shall never have the new South Asia that is possible. And when that consciousness, that philosophy is grasped by the policy makers; not necessarily the leaders, so when those who have that philosophical inclination either become policy makers or policy makers develop that philosophical inclinations, then perhaps we will see the coming to fruition of our project of an enlightened and shared South Asia.