LSE Director Professor Craig Calhoun introduces the new South Asia Centre at the School.

In 2014, democracy will be back at the centre of international focus on India. For social scientists, Indian democracy raises particularly interesting questions: how does India sustain democratic rule at low levels of per capita income? Why are the rural poor more likely to vote than the affluent, educated, urban elite? Does India’s ethno-linguistic diversity sustain or subvert democratic structures? There are also big challenges, not least from corruption, the abrupt slowdown in rapid economic growth, and rapid urbanisation. As academics and analysts prepare to grapple with these questions, it is only fitting that LSE advances its commitment to better understanding India—and through it, the world.

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When I visited India in February, I expressed the School’s intention to expand its academic engagement with India. We announced scholarships for students and began to develop relations with new academic partners. Returning to the country this week, I’m happy to announce that those intentions have transformed into action: LSE will launch a new South Asia Centre in January 2014.

The South Asia Centre will lead LSE’s long-term engagement with the region. It will not just coordinate but incubate, encouraging new research projects and collaboration. It will emphasise multi-disciplinary approaches with teams of social scientists and encourage comparative research not only in South Asia but also linking India to other major countries. To this end, it will bring together the creative energies of more than 70 LSE academics currently working on South Asia to find innovative solutions to the region’s economic, demographic, and development challenges.

Such initiatives are already underway at the School through multi-year research projects in academic departments and at the International Growth Centre. But now they will be well positioned to collaborate better and learn from each other. I hope that through the South Asia Centre LSE academics are able to transcend the borders that can hamper comparative research. This is true on a global scale—there should be more studies of India alongside the world’s other large democracies and emerging economic powers. And it is true within South Asia itself, where relations among researchers in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and other South Asian nations should be stronger. I would also like to see the South Asia Centre emerge as the premier venue for the exchange of knowledge between UK and South Asia-based academics.

While embracing a regional focus, the South Asia Centre will also further the School’s mission to advance social science. In the first place, links between strong social scientists in South Asia and those in the United Kingdom will be productive for both sides, whatever the topic of their research, or indeed, for building theory. Secondly, the study of South Asia offers unique potential to inform general knowledge by bringing distinctive cases and perspectives. Indian democracy is one example, but also important are efforts to deal with environmental challenges, struggles to improve gender equity throughout the region, and the creation of small businesses as part of economic development. It is not too much to say that questions about growth, development, voting systems, health and education reform, and the environment cannot be tackled well on a global level if researchers do not consider developments in India, and across South Asia.

By highlighting this region’s specific experience and perspectives, by helping to bring more attention to the knowledge of Indian and South Asian researchers, and by nurturing collaboration, the South Asia Centre will support and nuance the social science research underway at the School. This will help to keep LSE at the forefront of social science globally.

The launch of the South Asia Centre will be the latest development in the long shared history between LSE and the region, especially India. The School continues to celebrate its contribution to India’s post-independence development through the work of alumni such as B.R. Ambedkar, who drafted the constitution of independent India; Tarlok Singh, who was Nehru’s secretary; V.A. Nanda Menon, who founded the Indian Institute of Public Administration; and R.S. Bhatt, the chairman of the Indian Investment Centre. By producing “mandarins and academics”, as my predecessor Ralf Dahrendorf put it in his history of the School, LSE became “more deeply entrenched in Indian life than a few highly visible names could achieve.” The School has also served as a model for research and teaching in the social sciences that Indian institutions continue to engage.

Indeed, LSE is emulated throughout the world. It is a key leader in global social science, but also in bringing social science knowledge to bear on public issues and public policy. It is a leader in closely related professional fields like law, management, finance, and public administration, and its graduates are among the most influential in these fields. Growing relations with India and South Asia are part of the School’s continued knowledge leadership.

Moreover, through the South Asia Centre we also hope to acknowledge the contributions India has made to the social sciences, LSE, and the United Kingdom. A gift by the Indian industrialist Sir Ratan Tata in 1912 made the development of applied social studies possible, and led to the establishment of the Department of Social Sciences, which initiated research into the causes of poverty. Its first scholar, Clement Attlee, went on to become the British prime minister who oversaw Indian independence and also establish the National Health Service.

When the world’s attention turns to India in 2014, it will find LSE – its faculty, students, and researchers – are already there, learning and teaching, giving and taking. Going forward, I hope that the South Asia Centre will stand for this spirit of collaboration and creative exchange that has long driven the School’s ties with the region.