Debraj Bhattacharya is an alumnus of Presidency College, Calcutta, and currently is with Institute of Social Sciences, a civil society organisation, where he researches on contemporary development issues. He has earlier edited a book of essays, "Of Matters Modern: The Experience of Modernity in Colonial and Post-Colonial South Asia" (2008) and has written several reports on rural development issues of India. He also writes in more popular vein in newspapers in English and Bengali.
On November 19, 2012, in a provocative article on Bal Thackeray, Markandey Katju has made an observation that deserves our close attention. Katju's article is on Bal Thackeray and why he cannot support Thackeray's brand of politics. He argues that ideas such as the one which is propagated by the Shiv Sena is trying to break the unity of India. Agreed. However, this is not what I would like to focus on here.
You can read Katju's article here
Towards the end of the article Katju ponders over why India must stay united. This is interesting indeed. He says:
"Why must we remain united? We must remain united because only a massive modern industry can generate the huge wealth we require for the welfare of our people - agriculture alone cannot do this - and modern industry requires a huge market. Only a united India can provide the huge market for the modern industry we must create to abolish poverty, unemployment and other social evils, and to provide for the huge health care and modern education systems we must set up if we wish to come to the front ranks of the most advanced countries."
This may be seen as an articulation of a liberal nationalist position on India's development. India does not need to remain united, according to this argument, because of its history, because of its culture, because of shared emotions but because only a united India can provide a market that is big enough to fuel industrialisation. The logic is not difficult to understand - industrialisation would result in economic growth and generate the revenue that can be used for poverty alleviation. Fair enough. I certainly do not think that growth is an evil and we are definitely moving towards an urban industrial society whether we like it or not.
Unfortunately the process by which we are trying to achieve this transition is going in the opposite direction that Mr Katju is hinting at - liberalisation of the economy and the subsequent growth is creating a situation where Indian states are at undeclared war with each other.
This is happening because every state is now competing with each other to get more investment and therefore the states are rivals rather than friends. When Tata Nano was facing problem in West Bengal, Gujarat came and said "invest in my state", when in Haryana Maruti was facing labour trouble West Bengal said "come to my state". There are conflicts between southern states over water resources and this undeclared war is also beginning to shape national politics. Nitish Kumar's recent statement that he will support that coalition in next Lok Sabha Elections which will give special status to Bihar is a case in point. Mamata Banerjee's sole agenda for staying in UPA was to extract a special package for West Bengal and when she failed to do that she left the coalition.
Let us push this trend to its likely conclusion. Different states, in the coming years, would be fighting with each other over investment and resources. Some will win and some will lose, as is always the case in a competitive scenario. Some states will become richer, perhaps a lot richer, than other states.
They will then start asking the question as to why they should subsidise the failure of the poorer states. Hence the idea of national redistribution via the Centre would be challenged. It is not difficult to imagine that a developed state, say Gujarat, would ask what will it gain by subsidizing the north-east. If Gujarat's industrialisation does not depend on the market of Assam then why would Gujarat gives taxes to subsidise Assam?
Another trend that is already visible is that foreign investors are no more talking about "investing in India" but about investing in particular states of India almost as if the states form a nation-state and India is something like the European Union.
This is, to my mind, the greatest threat that India is currently facing to its unity. Unlike separatist political movements driven by ideological/emotional issues, this rivalry between the states has a strong economic logic behind it and hence is very powerful as a historical trend. A political movement can be quashed by the use of force; this trend cannot be reversed by sending troops.
No state has so far said that it wants to become independent but let us not be complacent about the possibility. The only way therefore one can keep India united is by ensuring that different states are able to grow and develop at a more or less even pace. In other words, inter-state disparity should be a serious concern of the central government; otherwise the logic of industrialisation itself will push India towards disintegration.
Hence, the terribly unfashionable word - "planning" - becomes central. In the last twenty years there has been very little serious attempt to reduce inter-state disparity in spite of nice words written in the five-year plan documents. Indeed it has become fashionable to rank different states as "best states" and "worst states" like "good boys" and "bad boys" in the class room. By doing so we are opening up the possibility of the "good boys" saying at one point of time that they would not like to sit with the "bad boys". Only if we pay enough attention to reducing disparity among states and ensuring fairly even all-India growth and development that we would be able to ensure the unity of India in the coming years.
The current trend is unfortunately in the opposite direction.