x

Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Europe should take a page from India’s book to solve its problems

The EU can learn from India how to embrace diversity to overcome some of the critical challenges, writes Amit Mukherjee
India is culturally more diverse than Europe. Indranil Mukherjee / AFP
India is culturally more diverse than Europe. Indranil Mukherjee / AFP

The EU is wrestling with human and financial crises. Pundits routinely draw unfavourable parallels to the US to illustrate changes that are needed. They say Europe needs a stronger central bank and greater political integration. Pointing to Puerto Rico’s $72 billion (Dh264bn) debt crisis, they note that unlike Greece, it will make a soft landing.

This prescription avoids a key fact: Europe’s diverse population will impede the creation of any form of a “United States of Europe”. India, which has comparable diversity, can teach the EU plenty in this regard. But will Europeans be willing to learn from an emerging economy where corruption is rife? They should.

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. The people in India who speak these languages live in a country which is close to the size of the EU. 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 also 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.

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 do so with technocratic rationales. That feeds into ruptures along national and linguistic lines.

EU politicians don’t seem to understand a basic truth taught in change management courses: when people rally around a shared vision, change becomes easier.

In contrast, India’s efforts at forging a common identity have been relatively successful. 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. Every child learnt the message of “unity in diversity” from primary school onward.

And despite its periodic, ugly, politics-driven killings, India championed religious diversity. Four of its 12 presidents were Muslims, as were four of 42 chief justices and many senior ministers and bureaucrats.

Europeans should ponder why so many British Muslims have joined ISIL 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 10 per cent of time to languages in secondary levels.

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-path-gameni-awat-jawat-soochak-danda”.

Though today’s BJP government is pursuing similar silly ideas, DJs and programme hosts 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 eurozone. David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership unless the EU acceded to British demands. 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 gave birth to 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 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. Mr Cameron, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande have not shown they are up to such challenges.

However, I am convinced that 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.

Amit Mukherjee is professor of leadership and strategy at IMD business school in Singapore