Five (hundred) kings, one throne: why federalism works

Five (hundred) kings, one throne: why federalism works

You might not have realized this if you live in a country with a settled political system, but there are many countries where federalism is a pretty hot topic these days. Post-Qaddafi Libyans are still trying to figure out the balance between regional self-determination and the powers of the national government. The powers-that-be in Mali are pushing for ill-defined decentralization while the aid community looks on in horror. Visitors to the multi-ethnic state of Burma find themselves reminiscing about Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. And it’s not just transitional states that are still trying to figure out the right combination of central authority and local autonomy. Just take Pakistan, where the long-running separatist revolt in Baluchistan shows that the capital in Islamabad still hasn’t convinced all its citizens that it has their interests at heart. 

Enter Ramachandra Guha. The sociologist, historian, and cricket aficionado sees modern India as the "world’s most reckless political experiment." Even while expounding on the modern challenges of identity, separatism, economic inequality, and corruption, the author of the book India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy still finds plenty of occasions to praise the nation’s founding fathers for unifying such an "unnatural nation" and "unlikely democracy." The key, he says, was decentralization. 

Speaking on Friday at the Center for Global Development in Washington, Guha pointed out that newly independent India faced a formidable array of challenges to its integrity. In the era of Partition, the country’s founders had to decide how to safeguard religious pluralism while preventing a Hindu theocracy (which Guha calls the "anti-Pakistan" approach). They had to confront a long-standing culture of exclusion that marginalized women and people from lower castes. And they had to make strategic decisions about whether to embrace democracy in stages (like the United States, which only abolished slavery nearly a century after the Revolutionary War) or all at once. (The Indians ultimately opted for the latter.) 

But perhaps the tallest order of all involved facing up to the country’s astonishing political and cultural diversity. At the moment of independence, Guha noted, India consisted of over 500 princely states, whose citizens spoke at least 17 major languages. India, he quipped, anticipated the European Union by 50 years, and may well outlast it by at least 50. Integrating these self-sufficient mini-countries and distinct peoples into a coherent and newly imagined Indian state required a strongly principled approach — and (in Guha’s words) "a little bit of bribery."

Key to imagining India as a single believable entity was the embrace of diversity. India’s founders were nothing if not realists. So they encouraged the new states to define themselves according to preexisting cultural and ethnic boundaries. India, argues Guha, could never have become a unified country and a thriving democracy without granting equal status to its many languages and religions.

At a moment when many citizens of the country were still tightly wedded to ethnic identities and skeptical about the viability of an overarching nation-state, pursuing federalism wasn’t a sign of weakness. It was, instead, an acknowledgment that people shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice the sense of belonging that defines their political reality.

Though Guha is alluding to events that happened more than half a century ago, his conclusions still hold true. When polities are trying to make the transition from authoritarianism (or anarchy) to democracy, notions of national identity aren’t strictly defined and can’t be taken for granted. Some groups within society may push for wide-ranging regional autonomy; others may insist on the concentration of power within the national capital. The trick lies in finding compromises that offer maximum respect to local aspirations while allowing for efficient government. 

The key thing to remember is that there is no one-size fits-all solution to the balance of central and regional power. In Guha’s telling, India’s founders had the patience to let their country — and its constituent states — figure it out as they went along. There are some issues being sorted out even today, but there is no denying that for this "unlikely nation," federalism has definitely worked. 

Neha Paliwal is the Assistant Editor for Democracy Lab.