The Economist – Is India a country or a continent?

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29 May, 2017

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Is India a country or a continent?

It is more integrated than the European Union, but less unified than the United States

IN A speech to London’s Constitutional Club in 1931, Winston Churchill poured scorn on the idea of India. “India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the equator,” he spat, a slur that invites such uniform disagreement from Indians as to disprove itself. Less well known, but more worthy of debate, is the previous line of Churchill’s speech: “India is no more a political personality than Europe,” he contended.

The personalities of both India and Europe have changed a great deal since 1931. But in explaining India to outsiders, Banyan often finds it helpful to compare it to the European Union (EU) rather than to the United States. Neither parallel does India justice, of course. The frequent comparisons to America can imbue India with a false cohesion. The less common comparison to the EU suggests a false disunity. But if the two parallels are judiciously combined, the falsities may help to cancel each other out.

One obvious example is Indian politics. This month voters took part in elections for the state legislatures of Punjab and Goa. As is often the case, turnout was higher than in India’s national election in 2014. In comparison with the United States, where races for national office, especially the presidency, overshadow state-level contests, that is a puzzle. In comparison with the EU, where elections in member states command far more attention than races for the European Parliament, it seems less strange.

The composition of India’s legislature also looks more like Strasbourg’s multicoloured mosaic than Washington’s two-tone Congress. The Lok Sabha, India’s lower house, seats as many as 35 parties. With the exception of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress, few of them have influence beyond one or two states. If America is the benchmark, the obvious question is why India’s voters have failed to coalesce around rival nationwide philosophies of government. But if the template is Europe, the fragmentation is easier to grasp. Few of Europe’s parties could appeal across national lines, however compelling their policies.

Another example is language. India’s constitution lists 22 “scheduled” languages. An American might wonder how it copes. But the EU, with 24 official languages, is even more polyglot. India’s national anthem had to be translated into Hindi from the original Bengali. But the EU’s anthem has no official lyrics, so as to leave open the question of what tongue to sing them in. Pick any two Indians at random, and the chance that they share the same mother tongue is less than 20%, according to data compiled by Romain Wacziarg of the University of California, Los Angeles, and his colleagues. But for the EU as a whole, according to Banyan’s calculations, the odds are less than 10%. Linguistically, then, India is neither as unified as the United States nor as divided as the EU.

National welding

The author of India’s anthem, Rabindranath Tagore, also saw value in comparing his country to both Europe and America. Like India, the United States faced the problem of “welding together into one body various races”. This challenge set both countries apart from Europe, which, Tagore felt, could take its racial unity for granted. Indeed, he saw Europe as one people divided into many states, unlike India’s many peoples “packed into one geographical receptacle”.

The gap between India’s many peoples remains large. The GDP per person of Bihar, India’s poorest state, is only a fifth of Haryana’s and little more than a tenth of Goa’s. That is a much bigger income gap than between Mississippi and Massachusetts, but comparable to the gulf between Bulgaria and Belgium.

These gaps have motivated increasing numbers of Indians to move from one part of their geographical receptacle to another. The government’s latest economic survey, written by Arvind Subramanian, its chief economic adviser, calculates that interstate migration nearly doubled between the 1990s and the 2000s, yielding a migrant population of over 55m in 2011 (roughly 4.5% of India’s population). That may fall well short of American mobility, but compares favourably with the EU, where 13.6m citizens (2.7% of the total population) live in another member state.

The movement of goods tells a similar tale. In India, unlike America, state prerogatives often trump the imperatives of interstate commerce. Trade is distorted by a patchwork of local levies, which the central government is keen to replace with a new goods and services tax. The familiar sight of lorries queuing at state borders suggests an economy that is hopelessly fragmented. But again, the benchmark matters. Drawing on new data, Mr Subramanian shows that trade among India’s states is now equivalent to about 54% of GDP, rather higher than many suspected. That is low compared with America (78%), but impressive compared with the EU (20%).

Net trade is even more dramatic. India’s single market and currency allow some states to run enormous trade deficits with others. Four run deficits in excess of 20% of local output. That is far greater than the euro area has been able to sustain.

India’s divisions hamper it in its dealings with other nations. Its diplomacy has a reputation for parochialism and mal-coordination—an elephantine inability to “dance”. But perhaps it is not given enough slack. Compared with the EU, India’s foreign policy is positively twinkle-toed. India, lest it be forgotten, is as populous as 150 other countries combined. By encompassing all of these people in a single political entity, it dramatically reduces the complexity of global governance—even if it does not always feel like that. Had the republic not succeeded in refuting Churchill, had it disintegrated into multiple sovereign states, the world’s negotiating tables might have needed to accommodate dozens of additional quarrelling players. When the Americans want to talk to India, they know whom to call—however frustrating the conversation sometimes proves to be.

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