The Poor Become Poorer
Democracy may be sweeping across South Asia, but its fruits have not devolved to the masses and most of them continue to exist in abject poverty.
The cycle of general elections in South Asia that began with Pakistan in May, 2013 is coming full circle. Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have all gone through national elections. This is as good a time as any to evaluate if the governments in power can fulfill the electors’ hopes and what is the future of democracy in the SAARC region.
It is tempting to start with India because it is the oldest, largest and strongest democracy in the region. Further, its political landscape has experienced a tectonic shift in February, 2015. As a result, Narendra Modi’s growth oriented, pro-rich, Hindutva fired bandwagon has hit an obstacle placed in its path by a propoor, non-elitist, reform-oriented Aam Aadmi Party in the capital Delhi.
Many regard this defeat of the BJP as well as Congress as a swing of the pendulum to a new exciting power play in Indian politics.
India has been experiencing unusual social and religious stress since the landslide victory of the Modi-led BJP in May 2014. That partly explains the setback suffered by the party in February 7 polls in Delhi despite some strenuous campaigning by Modi in favour of BJP candidates led by Kiran Bedi, a former police officer.
Their nemesis was none other than Arvind Kejriwal, tax officer turned political maverick and his Aam Aadmi
Party which captured 67 of the 70 seats, leaving the BJP with only three seats and fully eliminating Congress, the mother of all parties.
Once voting in Delhi’s legislative assembly polls was over and the exit polls forecast a major victory for AAP, the BJP was still expected to emerge as a robust opposition in the assembly. What should Kejriwal be doing in this atmosphere of exhilarating suspense? He decided to take seventy of his supporters to watch the latest Bollywood movie in town. It did not really matter which film because the jersey-muffler clad Kejriwal does not miss any.
This movie-mania is disconcerting from a man who has received the mandate to run a model administration in the nation’s capital. Bollywood is all action, suspense and titillation but what does it have to do with cleaning up the Aegean stables of a metropolis like Delhi? What is more worrying is that the movies in general and Indian movies in particular portray life in black and white, good and bad, virtuous and evil. They hardly deal with the grey shades of life or politics.
The Delhi election is not without its grey shades. The BJP managed to get only three seats and Congress secured none as compared to AAP’s tally of 67. This is in contrast to the percentage of votes received by the three parties. AAP obtained 52% while the BJP received 32% and Congress 10% of the overall vote. In a proportional system, these two would constitute a strong opposition but the first-past-the-post system does not allow that kind of sharing of the bounty.
The FPTP allows the electorates in South Asia to catapult parties from hero to zero and the other way around. Conversely, it allows a charismatic leader to win a solid majority only to realise that he lacks the means to deliver on the promises of justice, jobs and clean administration. No wonder then that South Asian democracies have never fulfilled their election promises. It is a matter of time before disillusionment sets in, leading to the loss of popularity and the people becoming desperate to throw out the leaders they had voted to power with a heavy mandate.
The AAP agenda is Delhi-centric but provides a clue to its priorities if it were to emerge as a national party. It vows to establish a people’s ombudsman to investigate corruption cases. While seeking more powers for Delhi by upgrading its status from capital territory to statehood, the AAP promises to decentralize power within Delhi to give people more say in administration.
Where the manifesto gets unrealistic is in the utilities sector which makes tall promises like reducing electricity cost by half, resorting to alternate energies, and assuring water supply. Whether the AAP promises will meet the fate of so many other election manifestoes or not, the poorer segments of Delhi and religious minorities can take pride in having administered a heavy blow to the noninclusive BJP.
The poor and the minorities joined hands against designer democracy, warning Modi to shed his superiority complex or say goodbye to half of India’s 1.2 billion population. The BJP’s selfinflicted class and religious confrontation can spin out of control if India moves away from its age-old socialist and secular proclamations.
The AAP’s spectacular success may have raised hopes for populist movements elsewhere in South Asia. An AAP look alike stands little chance of prevailing in a society as hierarchical as Pakistan. The masses in the Indus valley do not think of overthrowing the elite but rather want to be cared for by the systems put in place by them. When a basic wage earner is prepared to make a financial sacrifice by sending his child to a privately-run elementary school, he hopes his next generation to break into the system rather than breaking it.
Dynastic politics is another bane of South Asia. Family and friends make up the core of what goes as political parties. This sometimes leads to vendettas like the one witnessed between the Bhuttos and the Sharifs in Pakistan or Mujib and Zia families in Bangladesh. While the two dynasties in Pakistan have found a tentative way of ‘live and let live’ the situation in Bangladesh is rather alarming.
The one-sided election in Bangladesh has left the country fractured and a military intervention to put an end to the violent politics of the ‘Battling Begums’ is now being seen on the cards. Hasina Wajid’s efforts to re-enact her father’s vision of turning Bangladesh into a one-party state is out of sync with the times. She must find a way of compromising with the rightist forces rather than bludgeoning them by force. Presently, both sides have taken leave of reason, pushing the country closer to the brink.
In the 21st century, democracy has fared worse than the preceding century in reducing disparity between the rich and the poor. In the developing world, it primarily serves the interests of the networks of privileged classes who employ all sorts of means, especially the non-transparent type, to increase their share of the pie. The Congressled coalition’s last days were primarily marked by corruption scandals. The business friendly BJP is in no position to stem the rot which explains the AAP’s growing appeal.
Both AAP and Tehreek-i-Insaaf are receiving greater support but it is not clear how they can change the ingrained system of networking and patronage in the two countries. Public institutions in South Asia remain weak because other institutions like family, clan, or friendships are strong and do not allow merit or principle-based systems to take root.
The subcontinent’s most recent election was held in Sri Lanka, resulting in a stunning defeat for Mahinda Rajapaksa. As is often the case, his successor, Sirisena is set to undo the system imposed by the outgoing leader and return Sri Lanka to the parliamentary system. South Asian countries have in general showed preference for the less autocratic Westminster model. Moves to assume dictatorial powers through a presidential system or emergency rule have met stiff resistance.
An important lesson from the defeat of Rajapaksa’s regime is that the minorities can influence the outcome of elections by voting en bloc. The power of the minorities’ vote was at play in the Delhi election as well. The non-inclusive and narrow approaches of Modi and Rajapakse have bitten dust. What better proof of that than Modi eulogizing religious freedom and conceding the right of all to practice and propagate their faith. Vive la liberte!
Pakistan had pursued a moderate Islamic system till the 1970s but a series of upheavals beginning with the Nizame-Mustafa movement in 1977 that ended in the overthrow of Z. A. Bhutto by a fundamentalist general, set the country on a different path. That was followed by the Islamic revolution of Iran in 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan later that year, bringing Pakistan, the US and Saudi Arabia together in support of the Islamic Mujahideen battling the Soviet occupation forces. This would degenerate into the jihadi phenomenon led by Al Qaeda and the Taliban with the ISIS emerging as its latest flag bearer.
The Pakistan army’s paradigm shift post-Musharraf to back democracy and launch a decisive operation against the TTP and assorted jihadi outfits from June, 2014, could mark the beginning of the end of jihadi movements and sectarian militancy in the country. Till that goal is achieved, Pakistan is passing through the most turbulent period of its history since the Bangladesh war in 1971. Its outcome will deeply influence the future of democracy in Pakistan with ramifications for some other parts of the subcontinent. The writer is a former ambassador and has served in Paris, Ankara and Brussels.