Book Review: South Asia 2060: Envisioning Regional Futures

5 November 2013

My review for The Friday Times

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South Asia 2060: Envisioning Regional Futures is a comprehensive volume of essays edited by Adil Najam and Moeed Yusuf. Given the importance of the South Asian region, this book attempts to fill in a huge gap that has existed for decades. Discourses on South Asia for reasons well known, have been obsessive about all things security and in recent times terrorism. The editors note that South Asia “sits atop a globally strategic location” and gladly move on to other important topics, which makes this volume a useful contemporary reference. The introduction notes the immense potential for energy trade as well as the significant regional security implications for the world at large. This is why the future of South Asia is not just important to those who live in the region; it is duly a global concern. The 37 papers authored by 44 experts, in the volume trace the multiple futures and mercifully avoid the common fallacy of reducing South Asia to India and Pakistan and their bitter rivalries.

The introduction summing up the book rightly identifies that the idea of South Asia is a contested one and its ownership – political and economic – would determine the future. Commenting on the term Southasia introduced by Nepal based Himal magazine, the editors state: “…the future of the geography we know as South Asia will depend, at least in part, on what happens to the idea of Southasia. We are not in a position to say what that will be just yet, but it is clear that the aspiration of Southasianness is entrenched more deeply in the South Asian mind than we had imagined. It is an idea that our regional politics has often rejected and fought against. But the resilience of the aspiration suggests regional politics may eventually have to embrace it.” Thus the emergence of Southasia, a regionalized identity, will be a political process and the book suggests that there is no one course or prediction to hold it.

In this context the paper, the paper by US based Pakistani historian Manan Ahmad Asif entitled “Future’s Past” contends that though the immediate history of Pakistan and India might broadly be cause for pessimism (such as the violent partitions of ’47 and ’71), there is nevertheless a greater, storied and shared history that can be recalled in order to realize how communities in South Asia can peacefully co-exist.

Asif argues that our “immediate past” is what informs our understanding of the present, leading to interpretations that are rooted in differences and in ‘otherizing’. As he points out, “We take these ahistoricized words [coercion, submission, invader, Muslim, indigenous] and categories and proceed to give them universality that they don’t deserve even for the here and the now.” Similarly, he points out how the British too saw the divisions and focused on them, thereby exacerbating them. One cannot disagree with Asif when he posits: “To imagine a South Asia where difference is mutually comprehensible is also to look at the desi diaspora around the world.”

“We take these ahistoricized words [coercion, submission, invader, Muslim, indigenous] and categories and proceed to give them universality that they don’t deserve”

The editors of the volume identify the following common themes around which the book is organised: ‘Idea of South Asia’, ‘Regionalism’, ‘The South Asian State’, ‘Security and Development’ and ‘South Asia and Its People’.

The essays highlight how South Asia is a more of a competitive region than a cooperative one. The troubled experience of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and other attempts at regionalism testifies to this reality. Smaller states with much to gain from regionalism are themselves exasperated with Pakistan and India – the primary reason behind the regions failure to integrate. As pessimism reigns however, there are murmurs of optimism as Pakistan and India seek to open trade, perhaps leading to the reinvigoration of SAARC.

The theme pertaining to South Asian State is an insightful part of this volume as it traces the trajectory of the postcolonial states and how they have failed to maintain the social contract leading to a less charitable view of the future in many quarters. At the same time, the essays also highlight the immense potential for ‘constant metamorphosis’ of the state idea and are open to change with sufficient external and internal impetus. A pertinent observation extracted by the editors relates to the possibility of an inclusive, regionalized state. In a similar fashion the papers tell us that a region confronted with multitude of conflicts trumpets human development. The editors and some of the essays emphasise ‘co-dependence’ of security and development and an outcome which would be more people-centric rather than the current state or military oriented security discourse common in South Asia.

In her cogent essay, ‘Towards cooperation for poverty reduction?’

Safiya Aftab mentions the importance of entwining poverty reduction with economic growth, arguing that even if South Asia’s rate of development hovers around an acceptable 8%, that in itself will not lead to a reduction in poverty – or at least not a considerable enough reduction. She posits that there needs to be a “serious realignment of government policy towards income redistribution and investment in human development”, and that in the face of a lack of regional integration, growth on itself will not solve the region’s significant issue of poverty. A focus solely on economic growth without factoring in human development and wealth redistribution will only lead to greater disparity in wealth and prosperity, which in turn can lead to social unrest. South Asian states need to revisit their dependence on neo-liberal prescriptions and read Aftab’s essay carefully. In fact, the key factor influencing the future of the region relates to the future trajectories of economic cooperation.

Another well-researched essay in the volume, ‘Trade Relations: Some Predictions and Lessons by Pradeep S. Mehta and Niru Yadav tells us the gritty realities. The authors state how in 2011 “the total trade of South Asian countries amounted to $928.17 billion, with only $28.23 billion exchanging hands through regional trade.” Only less than 4% of South Asia’s trade was interregional making it the least regionalized areas of the world. Despite the numerous free trade agreements, political mistrust and a lack of political will have led to states pursuing their own bilateral FTAs, thereby circumventing the choked provisions of regional agreements such as SAFTA.

The key theme of volume – South Asia and its people – highlights how the countries in the region need to shift from a state centric position to people-oriented polities. There is now an emerging consensus that the people of South Asia are dynamic cultural, economic and political agents. With advances in technology, a burgeoning young population and democratic consolidation the power of South Asians to drive ‘change’ and demand rights is likely to increase. Regional cooperation initiatives such as Aman ki Asha and other movements are showing the path.

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