Rule of the People
Democracy is progressing across South Asia in different forms. It is successful in some parts and not so successful in others. Is there a common formula?
Unless we compare we cannot differentiate. Comparing the success of democracy and what it means and brings to the lives of the people living in the developed world is a cause of optimism for the people in the third world. But is democracy and its continuity bringing rewards and benefits in the lives of the people of South Asia? Dwarfed by India, the largest democracy in the world, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are countries that are yet to overcome their turbulent democratic history and appear on the regional map as truly successful and functional democracies.
It’s not all bad news for democracy in South Asia. People still continue to send their choice representatives to the legislative assemblies and even ballot them out when they don’t deliver. The recently held elections in Sri Lanka and the State of Delhi in India prove that even when the political leadership rides the high tide of popularity it can still be stunned by the will of the people. And as long as the will of the people is allowed to surface there is hope not only for the continuity of democracy but what it promises to deliver to the people of South Asia.
Sri Lanka - Rajapakse, the former Sri Lankan President, became a folk hero when he led his country in its fight against terrorism. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was a movement the Tamils had created for their selfdetermination. LTTE remained a major factor in Sri Lankan politics. Both as an organization that was politically strong and as a military power that challenged the writ of the government, the LTTE ran a de facto administration in the majority of areas in north-eastern Sri Lanka which is the historical home¬land of all the Tamil-speaking people. LTTE also continued to fight a guerrilla war under the leadership of Velupillai Pirapaharan. For 32 years, the LTTE challenged the authority of the Sri Lankan Army. However, under President Rajapakse the army, after 26 years of civil war, in May 2009 finally defeated the LTTE and thus finally put an end to the wave of unabated terrorism to which the people were exposed. This made Rajapakse a hugely popular leader. His achievement was aptly described by the Wall Street Journal which wrote in its editorial comment that, ‘for all those who argue that there is no military solution for terrorism, we have two words: Sri Lanka’. Why then did a popular figure like Rajapakse lose the recent elections?
India - In India nobody could predict that the BJP would be routed
in the Delhi state elections just nine months after its stunning victory in the Lok Sabha elections. It managed to get just 3 seats in a 70 member house. The Aam Admi Party grabbed 67 seats while Congress got none. The embarrassing defeat forced many analysts to question BJP’s rise to power.
There is a striking similarity in how two immensely popular leaders, one in Sri Lanka and the other in India, encountered unexpected electoral defeats within a space of one month. As much as Rajapakse failed to read the mood of the Sri Lankan people, Modi also failed to sense the mood of the 15 million constituents of Delhi.
Interestingly, this was the first election that Modi has lost since winning in Gujarat in 2002. Unwilling to forget the Ayodhya story, a large number of Muslims in India continue to consider him as the ‘Hitler of Gujrat’.
The big question that haunts Narendra Modi is ‘Did he, acting as the chief minister of Gujrat actually, fail to rein in the communal violence that erupted after the burning of the Sabarmati Express in 2002 in which over 2000 people - mostly Muslims died?’ In his own words he says ‘I feel sad about what happened but no guilt. No court has come close to establish it. ‘Either you could stay or you could be in power’. In Gujrat, Modi did not stay but was in power.
India is a huge country and being a Chief Minister of a State and being the Prime Minister of the whole of India are two different things. A new political era had already begun in India even before Modi took over as PM – an era in which the local leaders were attending to local issues and getting local credit.
The electoral defeat that Modi and his party suffered in Delhi has everything to do with local politics. Elections in another northern keynote state of Bihar are due in November 2015. Rampant corruption and poverty alleviation are the immediate issues of concern there, Modi may wear a very expensive suit to welcome President Barack Obama and promise India an industrial revolution but unless the local BJP leaders don’t strike a chord and win the trust of the people, BJP as a party may continue to be surprised in any future state elections. If people of Sri Lanka are today aspiring for true democracy, the expectations of people in India have reached the next level – ‘ a successful and functional democracy that should just not promise but deliver also’.
Pakistan - Democracy in Pakistan today can best be viewed through the prism of civil-military relations and how balance is maintained in managing this relationship. If anything the Peshawar tragedy has raised national optimism. From that tragic moment of gloom and despair, ‘military and political collectivism’ is today leading the mood of the nation and the national resolve to fight terrorism expeditiously and on fast-track basis. Implementation of the NAP (National Action Plan) to counter terrorism is underway. However, the biggest casualty in the process of its implementation is likely to be the lack of civilian control over the military which is likely to move the country further and away from the desired end point – ‘democratic and civilian supremacy in Pakistan’.
Unfortunately the Nawaz Sharif led civilian government has felt short of making the right moves for initiating the institutionalization of civilian control over the military. Factors that have contributed to lack of such control include; initiating General Musharraf’s trial, the timing of which was not suitable, especially when the civilmilitary relationship was undergoing a transformation and in a state of repair and build up; allowing Imran Khan to build up public pressure through his dharna and the accompanying successful rallies in the major cities of the country; the inability of Nawaz Sharif to tie a personal political chord with the Modi-led BJP government in India and thus failing to improve relations with India; failure of Nawaz Sharif’s government’s ministry of information to create any impact of civilian supremacy in running the affairs of the government and instead allowing the ISPR to emerge as an effective tool of communication in expressing and highlighting the military’s achievements. Now a vast majority of people in Pakistan consider that Zarbe-Azab is a military dictated operation with the civilian government forced to come on board after the military gave crammed it for choice; allowing the United States to continue to deal directly with Pakistan’s military leadership instead of dealing through the civilian government and, lastly, doing almost nothing about the ISI, the promoter and executor of ‘ the concept of strategic depth.’ It continues to remain a powerful actor committed and answerable to the military command first and later to the civilian government.
Nawaz Sharif’s failure to reconcile or bring about any major change in these areas has actually led to the tilt of the balance in favor of the military. Raza Rabbani ( now Chairman, Senate) has spoken about how the establishment of military courts will lead to ‘great miscarriage of justice’ and how they have ‘different standards of proof.’
Afghanistan -A national unity government is in place in Afghanistan. President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah jointly lead this government after they agreed on power sharing in September 2014. Marred by a history of ethnic tensions and violence, Afghans face huge financial, social and security challenges to the democratic order it is trying to establish in the country. But the good news for democracy and its progression in Afghanistan is that the national unity government is making all the right moves since it has come in power. It delayed the announcement of the 19 member cabinet but critics agree that almost all the selected members are of sound political and moral standing. The warming up of the relations with Pakistan is also a good omen as this will ensure improved cross border and internal security which is extremely essential for long term functional, lasting and sustainable democracy in the country.
Bangladesh – Democratic progression in Bangladesh follows a similar trend as that in Pakistan. Rigged elections, military coups, political assassinations, political leaders cashing the tragic deaths of their family members to ride the sympathy wave and winning elections, dictators resorting to constitutional amendments to consolidate and expand their political base and Islamization of politics. Bangladesh also has a madrassah system funded by Saudi and middle eastern countries with over 19,000 madrassahs operating in the country with over 10 million students enrolled in them.
The ruling Awami League walked over the January 2014 elections when the opposition boycotted them, alleging rigging. Since 1996, a caretaker government had been overseeing elections in the country and Awami League's refusal to do that in 2014 fueled the already troubled democracy. The International Crimes Tribunal (ITC) that Sheikh Hasina established to prosecute the war criminals of 1971 war has so far handed death sentences to 17 persons belonging to Jamaat-e-Islami. The opposition party BNP together with Jamaat-e-Islami is taking to streets and in the ensuing violence hundreds of people have so far died. Democracy in the country is on the brink. Unless there is a genuine political compromise, Bangladesh will continue to experience violence and disorder instead of a democratic order that it deserves. The writer is a retired lieutenant colonel of the Pakistan Army. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in civil-military relations.