The Fallacy of a South Asian Union

It was the poet in Vajpayee that suggested open borders and a common currency for South Asia. It was certainly not a national leader charged with promoting the interests of the one billion people whom he represents. The comparison with Europe’s ‘ever closer union’ is misplaced.

After centuries of conflict, the nations of Europe decided that coming together is the best means of securing peace and prosperity. On the contrary, after centuries of living together the countries of South Asia have decided that moving away from each other gives them the best way to preserve their distinct way of life and avoid repression by the ‘majority’. Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s two-nation theory may have been based on shaky foundations, but changing the status quo it has created after half a century of turmoil would be inviting more.

Secondly, the comparison with Europe is also incorrect in terms of political development of the nations. All the nations of Europe were ‘western’ democracies, with well developed institutions and market-based economies. In South Asia, we have absolute monarchies, constitutional monarchies, parliamentary democracies and military dictatorships. Except India and Sri Lanka to some extent, there are no democratic institutions that have the legitimacy to enter into union.

Thirdly, religious, ethnic and demographic divisions introduce a level of complexities that make South Asia more like the Balkans than like the European Union. When the EU looks for new politically correct excuses to keep Turkey out (while remaining open to the nouveau republics of Central and Eastern Europe) it is in recognition of the fundamental nature of these divisions.

Lastly, and this is probably the most important point, the combining all the countries of South Asia into one unit would create the poorest country in the world. (It’s like combining resistors in parallel – the sum is always lower than the lowest individual resistor). If organised as a popular democracy, the union is almost certain to put political power in the hands of over-populated regions while economic growth often emerges elsewhere. India already has such problems, with political power dominated by the North but much of the economic growth coming from the South and the West.A South Asian union burdened by such dichotomies is unlikely to ever overcome the economic hurdles needed to uplift its ‘teeming millions’.

India will be a big loser in any such union. After decades of being in the wilderness, India is finally nearing a path of progress and development. The challenge before Vajpayee is to ensure that India continues to grow at a rate that can improve the standard of living of its billion people. A political union with other South Asian states will not help him in this at all.

This post also appears at the Living in India Blogzine, a unique collaborative effort

  • Atanu Dey on Deeshaa says
    Common currency? Surely, it already exists: Pakistan prints them already and ships them to India without any prompting.