What Europe can learn from India

Amit S. Mukherjee

Arena Politics

Commentators often point to the USA as a model for Europe. They should be looking east instead


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© India Picture / Shutterstock.com

The EU is wrestling with seemingly insoluble human and financial crises. Political commentators routinely draw unfavourable parallels with the USA to illustrate the changes needed. They say Europe needs a stronger central bank and greater political integration. Pointing to Puerto Rico’s US$72 billion debt crisis, they note that financial markets have assumed that, unlike Greece, this US territory will have a soft landing.

This technocratic prescription, though valid, doesn’t address a key fact: Europe’s diverse population will impede the creation of the ‘US of Europe’. However, 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 a number of parallels between India and the EU:

The EU must unify very diverse peoples. Over the course of a few years, starting in 1947, India integrated 600 independent or 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. The peoples in India who speak these languages live in a country that is three-quarters the size of the EU. Many Indian languages are as different as English and Greek. Because half of India can’t even read 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. Hindus, too, are diverse, with rituals differing considerably across states

Like Europeans, Indians swear by their states’ cultures and foods. More Westerners eat ‘chicken tikka masala’ daily than Indians do

The EU’s efforts at managing diversity have been woeful. Its politicians haven’t made a cogent case as to why diverse peoples should come together. Politicians – like Jean-Claude Juncker – who ardently champion the EU, offer technocratic rationales, not ones that ordinary people can relate to intuitively. 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.

EU politicians don’t seem to understand a basic truth taught in leadership and change management courses: when people rally around a shared vision, driving change becomes easier. Why does the EU exist? It has gone far beyond the trading bloc that its forerunner, the European Economic Community, initially envisaged.

In contrast, India’s efforts at forging a common identity – ‘India’ did not exist for millennia – have been a substantial 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, ugly, politically driven religious killings, India championed religious diversity. Four of its 12 presidents were Muslims, as were four of 42 chief justices, many senior ministers and bureaucrats, and many top leaders of its armed forces. Forbes lists Indian Muslim billionaires, and India worships the many Muslims in its movies and the arts, and its beloved national cricket team. Europeans should ponder why so many British Muslims have joined ISIS while few Indians have, even though Britain’s Muslim population is 1.6 per cent of India’s.

The EU policy requiring children to study two non-native languages was a solid step towards instilling appreciation of diversity. However, countries support it irregularly. The UK lacks a countrywide time commitment, while Spain devotes only five per cent of curriculum time to it at primary levels and ten per cent in secondary levels. So, as a London resident, I heard British children speak only English, and during a two-week visit to Spain, I could get only one young Spaniard to admit to knowing some English.

People can drive change themselves, but they must want to – and it takes much longer. In 1970s India, my fellow students and I ridiculed the efforts of an Académie Française-like language institute that coined long-winded Hindi equivalents of simple English: ‘railway signal’ became ‘lahu-puth-gameni-awat-jawat-soochak-danda’.

Though today’s BJP government is pursuing similar silly ideas, DJs and programme presenters on Indian TV and radio speak smooth amalgamations of native Indian languages with English. For example, ‘Hinglish’, which combines Hindi and English, teaches even illiterate Hindi-speakers English words: unity in diversity writ small. Instead of celebrating Europe’s cultural richness and unifying people, European leaders are perversely pushing them apart. Wolfgang Schäuble mused that indolent Greece should temporarily leave the Euro zone. David Cameron promised a referendum on whether Britain should continue with EU membership, while pressurising the EU to accede to his demands for the UK to be able to opt out of some EU rules. Greece is flirting with Russia. Viktor Orban wants the EU refugee/migrant policy to ensure that Europe remains Christian. This depressing list is unending. Disunity in diversity writ large.

And so the very rich EU cannot effectively deal with the present refugee crisis. In contrast, during the 1971 bloodbath that birthed Bangladesh, dirt-poor India, plagued with regular famines, hosted roughly ten 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 must set an extraordinary, but human, vision that no country can fulfil on its own. They must learn to give something up first, in order to get something in return. They have to champion policies and ideas that their compatriots oppose, if these are essential for the EU’s long-term success. David Cameron, Angela Merkel and François Hollande have not shown they are up to such challenges.

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

About the author:

Amit Mukherjee is professor of leadership and strategy at the Institute for Management Development (IMD). He is based at IMD’s Executive Learning Center in Singapore


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