Squabbling Europe should learn how to forge a union - from India

Amit Mukherjee says India succeeded in buildinga national identity among peoples of vastly different cultural traditions because it made a good case for why people must come together

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 October, 2015, 11:33am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 October, 2015, 11:33am

The European Union is wrestling with seemingly insoluble human and financial crises. Pundits routinely draw unfavourable parallels to the US to illustrate needed changes. They say Europe needs a stronger central bank and greater political integration.

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This technocratic prescription, though valid, doesn't address a key fact: Europe's diverse population will impede the creation of a "US of Europe". India, which has comparable diversity, can teach much. But will Europeans be willing to learn from an emerging economy where corruption is rife? They should. Indians have got a lot wrong, but they got this right.

There are parallels:

  • The EU must unify very diverse peoples. In a few years starting in 1947, India integrated 600 independent and semi-independent kingdoms and the erstwhile British India, and consolidated them into language-based states. There are 29 today.
  • Both the EU and India have 24 official languages. Indians who speak these languages live in an area which is three-quarters the size of the EU's. Because half of India can't even recognise the other half's alphabets, educated Indians of different linguistic backgrounds talk to each other in English, an official language.
  • India has greater religious diversity than Europe. It has more Christians than all but five EU countries, and more Muslims than all but two countries worldwide.
  • Like Europeans, Indians swear by their states' cultures and foods.

The EU's efforts at managing diversity have been woeful. Its politicians haven't made a cogent case why diverse peoples should come together. Politicians who ardently champion the EU offer technocratic rationales, not ones that ordinary people can feel in their guts.

The absence of an emotion-laden rationale for unity has produced today's "What's in it for me?" ruptures along national and linguistic lines, as well as the alienation of European Muslims.

In contrast, India's efforts at forging a common identity have been a success. It adopted a national anthem that lauded, by name, every part of the country, and a flag with colours associated with the three major religions. Politicians made decisions that made no logical or economic sense, but helped manage diversity. Every child learned the message of "unity in diversity" from primary school onward. And despite its periodic politics-driven religious killings, India championed religious diversity.

Instead of celebrating Europe's cultural richness and unifying people, European leaders are perversely pushing them apart. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble mused that indolent Greece should temporarily leave the euro zone. British Prime Minister David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership unless the union acceded to British demands. Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, wants the EU refugee/migrant policy to ensure that Europe remains Christian. This depressing list is unending.

And so, the very rich EU cannot effectively deal with its refugee crisis. In contrast, during the 1971 bloodbath that birthed Bangladesh, dirt-poor India, plagued with regular famines, hosted roughly 10 million Muslim refugees.

The EU will stop lurching from crisis to crisis only if its leaders ensure it stands for something that makes Europeans proud. Its leaders have to champion policies and ideas that their compatriots oppose, if these are essential for the EU's long-term success.

I am convinced the EU can embrace diversity. After all, ordinary Europeans created Médecins Sans Frontières, and regularly leave the comfort of their rich homelands, at great risk to themselves, to take light and hope to the darkest corners of the world.

Amit Mukherjee is professor of leadership and strategy at IMD