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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. 

RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images

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Democracy Lab Weekly Brief, June 10, 2013

Melinda Haring lays out the case for reform of the democracy promotion community in Washington.

Firat Demir explains why the current wave of protests is ultimately good for Turkish democracy.

Min Zin shows why Burmese officials' efforts to restrict Muslim births demonstrate the need for more inclusive notions of citizenry.

In our latest collaboration with Princeton's Innovations for Successful Societies, Laura Bacon analyzes Liberia's efforts to use gender-sensitive reform of the police force as a way of addressing an epidemic of sexual violence.

Christian Caryl argues that the outcome of Tunisia's current political debates is crucial to the fate of democracy throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Juan Nagel explains why the efforts by Venezuelan opposition leaders to make friends overseas are provoking the government's ire.

Mohamed Eljarh reports on the declaration of autonomy by Libya's eastern province of Cyrenaica.

Finally, Anna Nemtsova examines the ironies behind the Russian exhibition at this year's Venice Biennale -- and what they say about the country's state of mind.

And now for this week's recommended reads:

The United States Institute for International Peace presents an in-depth study of how social media have influenced coverage of the Syrian civil war.

Soner Cagaptay argues in The New York Times that the Turkish protests support modernization theory's prediction that growing economic gains lead to greater democracy. Also writing in The Times, Daron Acemoglu rejects that argument by pointing to the increasingly authoritarian behavior of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party.

Writing in The Fair Observer, Kacem El Ghazzali argues that Morocco will have little hope of achieving democracy without safeguarding individual freedoms first.

In light of the release of highly anticipated U.N. report on the post-2015 development agenda, the Council on Foreign Relation's Terra Lawson-Remer reflects on the role of investor rights in fostering inclusive development in Peru.

Ahram Online's Rasha Hanafy interviews Egyptian artists about the political pushback against the Muslim Brotherhood's efforts to regulate culture.

In Your Middle East, Lisa Barrington chronicles her day as a Bahraini protester.

And Teodorovic Milos and Ron Synovitz report for Radio Free Europe that Bosnian militants are now joining the fight in Syria against the Assad regime.

As shown in the photo above, The Daily Star reports that thousands of Yemeni Zaidis protested the killing of 10 fellow Shiites in clashes with the police on June 9, 2013.

Tomorrow, be sure to join us along with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Eurasia Foundation to talk with Philip Shishkin about his new book Restless Valley. The event is tomorrow from 9:00 AM - 10:15 AM EST. You can also watch the discussion online on Google+.

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images