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