The Power of the Idea and the Poverty of the Imagination

These notes are intended to record our thoughts about two aspects of governance that, in our view, need serious reflection by analysts of developing societies in general and of South Asia in particular. We intend, with the help of contributors, to build on these notes throughout the year.

First, we have been reiterating our view that the ethos of South Asian societies is still monarchical. By this we mean that both the rulers and the majority of the ruled continue to view the world in a monarchical perspective and act in accordance with it.

The latest dynastic succession in Pakistan provides proof of this assertion yet again and does not need elaboration at this point. But even a cursory examination of the situations in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka will bear out our point.

What we intend to do is to examine the implications of this reality for the nature of governance in South Asia and the consequences for the people of the subcontinent. To what extent does it force us to be creative in thinking of the structures of governance that can be compatible with the underlying reality?

Second, we intend to examine the broader issue of the problems that arise when attempts are made to reconcile a particular mode of governance (say democracy) with an underlying social structure that is quite different in nature. Here we would take the recent elections in Kenya as our point of departure. Unlike South Asia, where the ethos is monarchical, the ethos in Kenya is very tribal. And we see similar consequences of the mismatch between the attempted mode of governance and the underlying social structure.

We intend to study both the similarities and the differences across countries (in particular what comes across as the Indian anomaly) and the way the underlying realities are evolving over time.

We would also extend our analysis to Asian countries beyond South Asia to test our hypotheses and conclusions. In particular, we would look at Thailand, where the monarchy has been retained, and Malaysia, where there has been an interesting process of transition.

At some point we will also take a look across the European landscape to see the evolution of governance across countries that retained and abolished their monarchies. We will start our analysis in the 17th century and bring it up to the present.

We are excited about the learning involved in this exercise and welcome readers to contribute their thoughts.

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