On Sub-nationalism

Pramit Bhattacharya has a nice piece in MintOnSunday about the positives of sub-nationalism, which fosters provision of public and common goods. He cites academic research to contrast Kerala and Uttar Pradesh, which were similar in the mid-19th century, but now have significantly differing levels of public goods.

The research Bhattacharya cites argues that the linguistic sub-nationalism that was formed in Kerala in the mid 19th century was responsible for the state’s high levels of public goods and development. The absence of such sub-nationalism has resulted in weak institutions and weak development in UP, he says.

He ends the piece saying that sub-nationalism is not always a good thing and can lead to secessionist tendencies. He cites the example of Assam, where sub-nationalism has actually hampered development rather than fostering it.

This discussion reminds me about last year’s “unofficial” referendum in Catalunya about whether to secede from Spain. The vote was unofficial since the Spanish Parliament didn’t authorise it, but there were strong signs of Catalan nationalism when I visited Barcelona last October. The Yellow, Red and Blue flag of Catalan nationalism hung from several windows. There was a clock in one of the main squares counting down to the referendum (which finally didn’t matter).

And while there were several emotional reasons for the demand for secessions, including repression at the hands of the “Castilians”, one of the main reasons was economic – the share of national spending on Catalunya was far less than the proportion of Catalunya’s contribution to the Spanish National Budget. The feeling of “why should we subsidise the rest of the country?” was rampant.

This little story illustrates both the positive and negative aspects of sub-nationalism. The negative is easy to see from the above – strong sub-nationalism leads to a strong “us and them” sentiment towards the rest of the country, and the region begins to resent the rest of the country, especially if the latter gets a larger share of the national pie. And this can lead to secessionist tendencies as is evident in Catalunya.

The positive thing about sub-nationalism, on the other hand, is that it subsumes groupism at smaller levels. A strong sub-nationalist feeling means that people think of themselves as members of that sub-nationalist group, and solidarity to any “lower level” groups weakens.

The problem with high solidarity among small groups is that it may lead to provision of private goods at the expense of public goods. When a place is strongly divided by caste, for example, each caste group wants to maximise the interest of the particular caste, and thus invests in a way that the caste gets a bigger share of the seemingly fixed pie.

When the solidarity is at the level of a state or region, on the other hand, the best way to develop the region or state is to provide for public goods or welfare schemes that span the entire state or region, and this leads to an expansion of the pie and the overall development of the region. In other words, when the “us” is a largish geographical area, it is more likely that investments happen in terms of public goods for the area rather than private goods.

Coming back to the example of Kerala, the strong Malayali subnationalism of the mid 19th century had the effect of pushing down casteism. Consequently, the groupism happened at a level (“Malayalis”) that was larger and more diverse than the caste-level groupism that happened elsewhere (like in UP) where there was no strong sub-nationlist movement. The lack of sub-nationalism in a place like UP has meant that casteist divisions in the region have remained strong, and solidarity at that level doesn’t lead to public goods or development.

Think of the nation as a hierarchy, of sub-nations and sub-sub-nations and so forth. And each person’s loyalty is divided in different extents up and down the person’s “chain”. And among these different layers, it is a zero sum game. Thus, strong loyalties at a particular level are resented both by levels higher and lower, and justifiably so. But the higher the level at which the loyalty remains, the better it is for the provision of public goods and development. Chew on it.