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Amid floods, a picture of promise in South Asia

Updated On: Aug 24, 2010
Impressions of South Asia are diverse and difficult to reconcile. The predominant one is of India with its rapid economic growth, rivalling China. 
At present, a quite different image is of the floods in Pakistan. Hopes for growth and fears of instability in the subcontinent intertwine. 
Behind the human tragedy, governance and stability are at stake in Pakistan. President Asif Ali Zardari has been heavily criticised for not attending to the disaster as he insisted on carrying on with trips abroad. 
Unless there is quick and effective response to the floods, the democratically-elected government could lose support. 
If so, the country could swing back to military rule as it has before, or run to another extreme. 
Given the still-controversial experience with its former President, General Pervez Musharraf, and the influence of the Taliban growing, a pro-Muslim government could instead emerge. While without precedent, such an outcome is not inconceivable.
What happens in Pakistan -with its large population, role in the global Muslim community and nuclear weapons - matters.
There is the question of Kashmir, over which rivalry with India has flared into conflict and where there is again growing unrest. 
Pakistan is also key to Afghanistan, where the United States is stretched by current commitments and will seek to begin withdrawal.
"Af-Pak" is how the American administration has conjoined the countries. The control of tribal lands at the porous border is critical. Who runs the country and their attitudes to the US and its allies will be vital political issues, alongside the human tragedy of the floods.
Some fear Pakistan will be a failed state, without effective governance. True, there are many challenges but their people have shown remarkable resilience and resourcefulness. 
It bears remembering that, some 50 years ago, Pakistan was lauded as the hope for development on the subcontinent, ahead of India. 
Even as recently as 2006, Pakistan, under President Musharraf and with former Citibanker Shaukat Aziz as Premier, chalked up growth of 6.9 per cent. If stability can be established, there is hope that Pakistan can return to a growth path.
Meanwhile, the current optimism about India should not blind us to past decades, when the country struggled with low growth and poverty. 
As smaller economies in East Asia soared, the country contented itself with a quasi-alliance with the Soviets and a messy democracy. 
Today, without sacrificing democracy, India is growing rapidly in both economics and the reckoning of the world. 
Opening to foreign trade and investments, looking to the East and cultivating ties with the US have become consistent policies for the country, no matter which party wins power. While development gaps remain, more and more people believe in the "Amazing India" story.
Similar prospects can spread across the subcontinent. Bangladesh, so often associated with natural disasters and challenges to development, is now growing at 5 to 6 per cent. 
Its democracy faces struggles but many hope to achieve growth with more equity than India or other countries have, given the stellar example of the Grameen Bank for the poor.
In Sri Lanka, decades of civil war have come to an end. If there can be reconciliation between the ruling Sinhalese and the Tamils, the country can potentially move ahead quickly, given its relatively compact size and well-educated people.
South Asia need not be divided between the countries of progress and those of problems, if economic development and democracy can spread. 
After all, the peoples of the subcontinent have a common historical root in the Indus Valley civilisation, long before the British Raj. 
When I was last in India, I spoke at a corporate conference attended by more than 600 business people. Many were foreign firms interested in trading and investing in the country. Many more were Indian-based companies looking to expand. 
The government has newly recognised the need to build infrastructure and move ahead quickly with roads, new industrial corridors and other infrastructure. 
The goal, a government minister explained, is to bridge development gaps so that more of India can participate in the story of growth, and not just the established urban centres. 
Equity between regions and peoples is critical to sustaining growth with democracy and keeping the country stable.
This applies not only to what happens within India's borders but, now more than ever, across the South Asian sub-continent.