emoc­racy in South Asia

With the en­tire re­gion un­der demo­cratic rule these are, per­haps, the best of times for South Asia.

Southasia - - Cover story - By S.G. Ji­la­nee

The year 2008 should go down in his­tory as the point in time that ush­ered democ­racy all over South Asia for the first time. Among all the coun­tries com­pris­ing the re­gion - In­dia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Pak­istan, Sri Lanka, the Mal­dives and Afghanistan, this is a fas­ci­nat­ing con­trast of sta­ble and de­vel­oped democ­ra­cies with fledg­ling and weak ones. The one in Afghanistan is even con­tro­ver­sial, be­cause it has no con­trol over the se­cu­rity of the lives of its peo­ple.

Among these states, only In­dia and Sri Lanka have been the most firmly rooted democ­ra­cies, with­out any change, since their in­de­pen­dence, re­spec­tively, in 1947 and 1948, ex­cept for the mi­nor dif­fer­ence re­lat­ing to their sys­tem of gov­ern­ment. In­dia was a repub­lic from the very start; Sri Lanka started as a do­min­ion of the Bri­tish Crown, like Canada, Aus­tralia and New Zealand and be­came a repub­lic in 1972.

Bangladesh be­gan as a democ­racy with its in­de­pen­dence in 1971, but af­ter barely three years lapsed into mil­i­tary rule. Sev­eral bouts of dic­ta­tor­ship later, the coun­try fi­nally em­barked on the course to a sta­ble democ­racy, with the over­throw of Gen. Mo­ham­mad Er­shad in 1990.

Since then, Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia have been tak­ing turns as prime min­is­ter and com­plet­ing their full five-year terms, de­spite their cease­less at­tempts to top­ple each other be­fore time. The for­mer de­rives her sup­port as the daugh­ter of the nation’s founder, Sheikh Mu­jibur Rah­man; the lat­ter from the fact that it was her late spouse, Gen. Zi­aur Rah­man, who pro­claimed in­de­pen­dence over a clan­des­tine ra­dio af­ter mid­night of March 25, 1971 and gave the call for re­sis­tance, when Sheikh Mu­jibur Rah­man and Awami League’s top lead­er­ship was not avail­able to lead.

Nepal’s tran­si­tion to­wards democ­racy which be­gan in 1990 when, then King, Biren­dra, cre­ated a con­sti­tu­tional monar­chy with the king as head of state and an elected prime min­is­ter as head of gov­ern­ment, cul­mi­nated with its dec­la­ra­tion as fed­eral demo­cratic repub­lic in May 2008 af­ter its last king, Gya­nen­dra ab­di­cated, end­ing the monar­chy that had flour­ished for more than 250 years.

Mal­dives be­came fully in­de­pen- dent in 1965 from its sta­tus as a Bri­tish pro­tec­torate. Three years later the monar­chy that had been in place since 1153, was abol­ished and Mal­dives be­came a repub­lic in 1968. Since then the Mal­dives has been ruled by elected pres­i­dents.

Its long­est rul­ing pres­i­dent, Mamoon Ab­dul Gay­oom was suc­ceeded, af­ter a full thirty-year rule, by op­po­si­tion leader Mo­hamed Nasheed, who be­came the first Pres­i­dent to be elected by a multi-party democ­racy.

Bhutan, an­other monar­chy, be­gan its tran­si­tion to democ­racy in 1953 when King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck es­tab­lished a 130-mem­ber Na­tional Assem­bly In 1071 his suc­ces­sor Jigme Singye Wangchuck in­tro­duced fur­ther re­forms in­clud­ing al­low­ing for im­peach­ment of the King by a two-thirds ma­jor­ity of the Na­tional Assem­bly.

And with its first par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in De­cem­ber 2007 and March 2008, Bhutan joined the fam­ily of demo­cratic coun­tries as its new­est mem­ber.

Pak­istan’s case is unique among all the na­tions of South Asia. It be­came in­de­pen­dent in 1947 but has been

grop­ing for its iden­tity till this day. It has al­ter­nated be­tween long pe­ri­ods of dic­ta­tor­ship with brief in­ter­ludes of democ­racy. It has tried the par­lia­men­tary and pres­i­den­tial sys­tems as well as a cross of both, ex­per­i­mented with joint and sep­a­rate elec­torates and de­bate still rages about whether it should be a sec­u­lar state or a theoc­racy. There are those who use the mantra “Qaid-e-Azam’s Pak­istan” to ad­vo­cate a sec­u­lar dis­pen­sa­tion. They quote Jin­nah’s 11 Au­gust 1947 speech to the mem­bers of the Con­stituent Assem­bly to sup­port the ar­gu­ment that he had con­tem­plated a sec­u­lar state.

There is one school of thought that ar­gues that democ­racy is alien to Is­lam, while the idea of a monar­chy as well was floated at one time. Its strong­est ex­po­nent was the noted in­tel­lec­tual and quon­dam am­bas­sador to the Philip­pines, Pir Ali Mo­ham­mad Rashidi. He even made a for­mal case for Pres­i­dent Ayub Khan to as­sume the ti­tle of “King.”

Democ­racy in Pak­istan has also been less sta­ble than dic­ta­tor­ships. Ex­cept Z. A. Bhutto, no other elected prime min­is­ter has ever com­pleted a full five-year term, whereas mil­i­tary dic­ta­tors have ruled for a decade and more at a stretch. In fact Pak­istan’s rulers are so men­tally geared to dic­ta­tor­ship that even when elected they try to wield spe­cial pow­ers. Even Z. A. Bhutto ruled through emer­gency pow­ers. And to­day de­spite much song and dance about democ­racy, the prime min­is­ter is a show boy while the pres­i­dent wields the power.

There­fore, whereas in the case of Nepal and Bhutan, democ­racy seems to have come to stay it is still un­cer­tain whether democ­racy rein­tro­duced in 2008, will en­dure. The grapevine is al­ready buzzing with talks of change be­ing round the cor­ner. A takeover by Gen. Kayani seems al­most a set­tled af­fair. The ques­tion only seems when. And the an­swer to that ques­tion rests with the United States.

The present gov­ern­ment led by Pres­i­dent Zar­dari en­joys Amer­ica’s sup­port in re­turn for his all out co­op­er­a­tion in Amer­ica’s anti-Tal­iban and anti-al Qaeda war. But he is dis­pens­able. Gen. Kayani has close rap­port with Amer­i­can mil­i­tary top brass and they trust him. The fact that he was trained in the United States is also of­ten stressed at var­i­ous lev­els in Amer­ica. There­fore, if the sit­u­a­tion de­manded the U.S. will have no com­punc­tion in dis­card­ing Zar­dari as a pair of old socks and wel­com­ing Kayani.

More­over, democ­racy means dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple. Not all coun­tries prac­tice the same prin­ci­ples. And even dic­ta­tors are some­times elected a la Pervez Mushar­raf.

In 2000 when the Peo­ples’ Party and Jorg Haider’s Free­dom Party formed a coali­tion in Aus­tria, the EU mem­bers ceased co­op­er­a­tion with the Aus­trian gov­ern­ment be­cause they per­ceived Haider as anti-Semitic.

In the Jan­uary 2006 Pales­tinian par­lia­men­tary elec­tions Ha­mas won a de­ci­sive ma­jor­ity in the Pales­tinian Par­lia­ment. But fol­low­ing the elec­tions, the United States and the EU both cham­pi­ons of democ­racy, halted fi­nan­cial aid to the Ha­mas-led ad­min­is­tra­tion.

As to the United States, Guardian colum­nist, Si­mon Jenk­ins once ob­served that the U.S. sup­ports democ­racy when democ­racy sup­ports the U.S. Other­wise it sup­ports dic­ta­tors and top­ples elected gov­ern­ments. In Iran it en­gi­neered the over­throw of elected Prime Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Mosad­degh in1953 and in­stalled the Shah with his reign of ter­ror, be­cause Mosad­degh was a so­cial­ist, who na­tion­al­ized the Bri­tish-owned An­gloIra­nian Oil Com­pany.

In 1973, the United States ma­nip­u­lated the over­throw of Sal­vador El­lende of Chile, the first demo­crat­i­cally elected pres­i­dent of a coun­try in Latin the Amer­ica, be­cause he was a Marx­ist.

In fact the ex­am­ples of how Amer­ica has sup­ported naked dic­ta­tor­ships, while chant­ing the mantra of democ­racy, are myr­iad from Fer­di­nand Mar­cos of the Philip­pines and the sev­eral gen­er­als in Pak­istan.

Democ­racy needs free­dom to flour­ish. It is there­fore a fan­tasy for the less de­vel­oped coun­tries, es­pe­cially, of the East. As Pun­dit Jawa­har­lal Nehru ob­served in 1935, long be­fore in­de­pen­dence, that “democ­racy for an East­ern coun­try seems to mean only one thing: to carry out the be­hests of the im­pe­ri­al­ist rul­ing power.” Sim­i­lar thoughts are ex­pressed by Prime Min­is­ter, Z.A. Bhutto in his book, “The Myth of In­de­pen­dence.”

The eco­nomic de­pen­dence of a poor coun­try on as­sis­tance from the rich cir­cum­scribes its free­dom. As Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton said in his farewell ad­dress, “An at­tach­ment of a small or weak to­ward a great and pow­er­ful nation dooms the for­mer to be the satel­lite of the lat­ter. It must pay with a por­tion of its in­de­pen­dence for what­ever it may ac­cept un­der that char­ac­ter.”

Pak­istan is a glar­ing ex­am­ple. It has to con­trib­ute with the lives of its sol­diers in Amer­ica’s war or lose the bil­lions of dol­lars in as­sis­tance. Even its do­mes­tic pol­icy has to be cut out to U.S. re­quire­ments. Its se­cret agent and its em­bassy ve­hi­cle may kill Pak­ista­nis with im­punity but Pak­istan must not try them, else the aid would stop.

Democ­racy is fur­ther smoth­ered by the World Bank and IMF. “Ev­ery coun­try the IMF/World Bank forced their way into ended up with a crashed econ­omy, a de­stroyed gov­ern­ment, and some even broke out in ri­ots,” said No­bel Lau­re­ate and se­nior vice pres­i­dent of the WB, Joe Stiglitz, once in a re­port to his se­nior ex­ec­u­tives.

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