As an avid watcher of Hindi films and Hindi serials, I have been struck by how rapidly both have begun using some highly localised patois, most strikingly in Omkara and Gangs of Wasseypur . In the soaps, this is pretty ubiquitous now. I daresay the same thing is happening in non-Hindi films as well.

As one looks around at the rapid advance of this new dimension of regionalism, one cannot help wondering about the direction in which we are headed. As I have pointed out fairly often elsewhere, India has been gradually sliding back into the normal state of the State — of an economically powerful (if not rich) Centre and a politically and culturally strong periphery.

All the angst expressed by political scientists about the State not doing its bit is about this problem: mansabdari has crept back in since 1996 and is now fully reinstalled. To see how, all you have to do is to replace sawars (horsemen) of the mansabdari system with MPs in our version of the Westminster model.

For a mansab in the old days strength depended on how many sawars he could provide to the central power; today it depends on the number of MPs he can provide. Not just that. The old mansabdars comprised strong dynastic family rule whose later inheritors went on to defy the central government. That too is happening now, at least where family successors are available. The old wine has oozed back into the new bottle.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when I was growing up, the political leadership was still very worried by what it called India’s “fissiparous tendencies.” So the Congress made a huge effort towards the homogenisation of India. This took different forms but, overall, the purpose was to create a composite Indian identity to replace the old regional and communal ones.

To an extent the effort was successful but it doesn’t seem to have stood the test of time.

Today the Congress, by capturing the woollier liberals’ minds, has ensured that it is entirely politically correct to place the Indian identity on par with a regional or a communal one wherein communities and individuals enjoy the same freedoms. That this is logically impossible has not entered the post-1990s Indian Liberal brain. The question therefore arises, as Alberto Alesina and Bryony Reich have asked in a recent, rather technical, paper called “Nation Building” available on the website of the National Bureau of Economic Research (U.S.), what are the incentives for governments to homogenise?

(Alesina, to those who may not have heard of him, is one of the world’s leading economists, an economist’s economist like Avinash Dixit and Prasanta Pattanaik. He is an Italian who made his reputation in the 1980s at Harvard, and for the last several years has concerned himself with applying the techniques and concepts of economics to governance problems.)

The issue Alesina and Reich have sought to resolve has special relevance to India: why do nations stay together?

To quote: “Nations stay together when citizens share enough values and preferences and can communicate with each other. Homogeneity amongst people can be built with education, teaching a common language to facilitate communication, but also by brute force such as prohibiting local cultures. Democracies and non-democracies have different incentives when it comes to choosing how much and by what means to homogenize the population.”

One important conclusion that Alesina and Reich reach is that greater democracy can actually reduce the tendency towards homogenisation because the incentives in a democracy work towards that. Dictatorships and autocracies tend to homogenise more. The evidence the authors adduce is impressive and should engage the attention of political scientists and economists working together rather than in silos.

There are, of course, different types of “homogenization technology.” It turns out that autocratic governments implement education reforms better than democracies. “One of the reasons why public education is not privatised may be the fear of a loosening of sense of national unity. Often what is taught in school is highly coordinated.”

This does not mean democracies always end up failing in the homogenisation effort. They do build roads to provide full connectivity, which is an important element of homogenisation. “A sense of patriotism is built even in a democracy, but most of the time with less emphasis and aggressiveness than in some dictatorships.”

The key to understanding this is the notion that the provision of public goods work towards greater homogenisation. An equal (they don’t say equitable) tax burden on everyone is another way — everyone detests the government equally and in that sense the population is homogenised.

Jokes apart, the gradual divergence in economic and political power in India, wherein the Centre and the States are interdependent in a way that leads to non-cooperative strategic behaviour; the tendency of democratic pressures to fragment the population into vote banks; the growth of fuzzy liberalism which replaces the aspirations of the Silent with the individual views of the Loud; and many other developments in India in the last 17 years ought to lead to some quiet re-examination of the conflict that is developing between nation and country.

Alesina and Reich’s paper provides a good starting point.


(This article was first published in The Hindu print edition dated March 19, 2013.)