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.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By M. Saeed Khalid

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.

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