South Asia’s economic weakness and a rise in inequality appear to be causing a disturbing growth in the myopic democracies that govern it and in its rising ethnic nationalism. What we see today is a region mired in abject poverty, competing within itself in the wrong areas and for the wrong reasons. The main economies, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, produce more or less the same type of industrial and consumer products and vie for the same global markets and this intense competition to survive economically coupled with a dark history of ethnic and religious rivalries is today creating a toxic hysteria of war and animosity. Where, cooperation and economic linkages should have been the natural choices to grow inclusively and in tandem, what we instead see is needless undermining of each other’s interests, in the process short-changing the future of perhaps the largest population-segment of the world. Corruption amongst the South Asian political leaders is rampant with every country having its own peculiar tales of its leadership’s unexplained wealth, but even more disappointingly, some of these leaders thrive on the politics of hate, fear and divisiveness, which as we know in the end always boomerang. Often not openly declaring themselves to be ethnic nationalists – in which identity is defined by perceived genetic, religious or linguistic heritage rather than democratic ideals or principles – they nevertheless act in a manner that taps on political appeal associated with such forms of identity. For example, in India, not as if the Modi Sarkar has not already caused enough damage with its intolerant policies that weaken the very underlying social fabric jelling a diverse but secular India, its support for newly founded Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC) in the USA, could not have come at a more inopportune time. RHC draws a lot of parallels between Donald Trump and the Hindu right wing in India, and is more than likely to even be an embarrassment for Trump himself, who ironically at this late stage of his campaign is desperately trying to woo back minority leaders. While India on the other hand is being internally challenged by its minorities like never before!

Anyway, back to economics. It is natural to ask whether something as broad as this can have a common economic cause. After all, according to the IMF (International Monetary Fund), though global economy on a collective scale may have been growing at a slightly lower rate since 2008, it however is growing firmly – world’s read GDP (gross domestic product) was 29 percent higher than it was just before recession, in 2007. Also, South Asia’s growth in terms of GDP has not been much different; of course not the pre-recession level, but steady growth surely. So the question then being that why all this fuss about emerging dangerous trends in nationalism/divisive politics? The answer to this is somewhat explained by Harvard professor, Benjamin M. Friedman, in his book, “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth”, where he argues that deep and practical level people make judgments about their economic progress from what they see in their own lives, and by then comparing it with the progress made by the previous generation, especially their own parents. And if they can’t see themselves and others in their cohort as progressing (according to this comparison) over a lifetime, their social interactions often become angry, resentful and even conspiratorial. Now almost all of us in South Asia tend to carry this notion that somehow times before us were much better and that things have gradually been deteriorating!

Ethnic nationalism thrives on such discontentment and disillusionment. It creates an ego preserving excuse for self-perceived personal failure: Other groups are blamed for bad behaviour and conspiracies. Often, ethnic, racial or religious conflict follows. As an example. Professor Friedman refers to the horrific atrocities committed in the name of nationalism during World War II – not coincidentally following the Great Depression. He also gives other examples from the last two centuries when ethnic conflicts followed slow economic growth. It is this rise in inequality of wealth and opportunity across South Asian economies that is taking the power away from economic connectivity and landing it in the hands of unhealthy nationalism and religious fervour.

What the South Asian leaderships - especially those in India and Pakistan where both countries are heavily armed and that too with nuclear weapons - need to realise is that while sounding the war drums may win them short-term popularity, it is the respective economic growth and addressal of inequality that they really ought to be focusing upon. Internally, nothing can be more counterproductive than negatively stoking ethnic or religious sentiments. The RHC or any other such right wing coalitions need to be discouraged since the solution lies in inclusiveness and not in excluding or persecuting ethnic or religious minorities. Till such time that something is done to arrest the trends of rising inequality and weak economic growth, we will continue to see more unhappiness, discontent and political disruption. Promoting meaningful cooperation and real economic linkages within South Asia has so far been beyond our grasp, yet it is the best option we have.


The writer is an entrepreneur and economic analyst.