Is South Asian democ­racy in retreat?


The demo­cratic project con­fronts myr­iad chal­lenges in South Asia. The con­cept it­self is be­ing re­vis­ited to learn more ag­gres­sive in­ter­ven­tions and reem­pha­sis nu­ance and prac­tice.

Some coun­tries — like In­dia and Sri Lanka, both with Bri­tish colo­nial back­grounds — seem to be an ex­cep­tion in one im­por­tant re­spect: con­ti­nu­ity and change.

In­dia has evolved many in­sti­tu­tions on the pat­tern of past ex­er­cises and Sri Lanka has man­aged to pro­vide a sem­blance of demo­cratic con­ti­nu­ity de­spite tu­mul­tuous changes in the bi­og­ra­phy of this is­land coun­try.

Other coun­tries — like Pak­istan and Bangladesh, carved out of first In­dia and then Pak­istan ( Bangladesh) — have not matched the for­mer two be­cause of both ide­o­log­i­cal and in­sti­tu­tional dilem­mas. The very ba­sis of Pak­istan was reli­gion, which, in a mod­ern sense, was/ is anath­ema to demo­cratic ide­ol­ogy.

It can nei­ther adopt uni­ver­sally ac­cepted val­ues of democ­racy nor re­as­sure mi­nori­ties as other dom­i­nant groups claim them­selves the guardians of the na­tion state and democ­racy.

Tak­ing to the Grass­roots

In South Asia, demo­cratic ex­er­cises have be­come more rit­u­al­is­tic than peo­ple- cen­tric and sub­stan­tive.

The pro­ce­dural part, which makes a demo­cratic process, needs to be si­mul­ta­ne­ously trans­for­ma­tory and sub­stan­tive by show­ing its in­clu­sive char­ac­ter and per­for­mance.

A new thrust of late has been given to mak­ing democ­racy mean­ing­ful by ad­her­ing to the prin­ci­ple and prac­tice of “sel­f­rule” and “shared rule.”

Th­ese con­cepts have been used to fo­cus greater de­mands for lo­cal- level par­tic­i­pa­tion in gov­er­nance and devel­op­ment.

Some coun­tries that have em- braced fed­er­al­ism are par­tic­u­larly en­am­ored of th­ese con­cepts be­cause of the regimes’ fail­ure to dis­trib­ute power and re­sources to the lo­cal lev­els.

In­dia has amended its con­sti­tu­tion ( 73rd amend­ment) to take pol­i­tics to the grass­roots while Bangladesh, which is not a fed­eral coun­try, has tried to al­le­vi­ate poverty and re­duce its pop­u­la­tion growth through var­i­ous gov­ern­men­tal and non­govern­men­tal mea­sures.

The Grameen Bank ex­per­i­ment is con­sid­ered to be a novel at­tempt that en­cour­ages poor peo­ple to get short- term credit to take up var­i­ous kinds of pro­duc­tive ac­tiv­i­ties.

Nepal too has vowed to be a fed­eral coun­try with the hope of trans­form­ing ex­ist­ing state struc­tures into dif­fer­ent lay­ers ( fed­eral units) of gov­er­nance.

The is­sues of na­tional in­te­gra­tion/ dis­in­te­gra­tion and demo­cratic devel­op­ment are now in­ter­twined, be­cause democ­racy’s in­clu­sive­ness and em­pow­er­ment of all sec­tions of the peo­ple can con­trib­ute to na­tional in­te­gra­tion while ex­clu­sion­ary poli­cies and prac­tices, as have hap­pened in the past, will in­vite alien­ation.

In most South Asian coun­tries, peo­ples are not at ease with the con­tin­ued dom­i­na­tion of cer­tain priv­i­leged caste and class sec­tions, thus some­times driv­ing them to opt for move­ments for au­ton­omy and even for sep­a­ra­tion.

There has been re­sis­tance to the con­tin­ued dom­i­na­tion of high caste and class groups, who have all along been in the priv­i­leged po­si­tions form­ing elite groups in pol­i­tics and economies.

Th­ese groups also con­sti­tute the mid­dle class or up­per mid­dle class, though the scope of the mid­dle class is now ex­tended to the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of crony cap­i­tal­ism and clien­telism in pol­i­tics.

A Ris­ing Mid­dle Class

Thus, the emer­gence of a mid­dle class and democ­racy also needs to be re­vis­ited.

Although South Asia’s mid­dle class may bring eco­nomic and so­cial trans­for­ma­tion, its new traits and source of earn­ings, plus link­ages be­tween politi­cians and the mafia econ­omy, have bred sys­temic aber­ra­tions.

Th­ese are ev­i­dent in the elec­tions of par­ties with the help of crony cap­i­tal­ists and the mafia. Such levers of power would never draft pro- poor poli­cies, let alone en­force them.

So the ex­ten­sion of the mid­dle class may not nec­es­sar­ily be con­ducive for the con­sol­i­da­tion of democ­racy.

The new mid­dle class pop­u­la­tion is not likely to be com­mit­ted to the val­ues of democ­racy nor can it un­dergo suf­fer­ings and sac­ri­fices to safe­guard th­ese val­ues.

For them, pol­i­tics is a less at­trac­tive domain. In Nepal, four mil­lion Nepali youth (poor) work as la­bor­ers in for­eign coun­tries and the chil­dren of nou­veau riche, or the so- called mid­dle class, do not pre­fer to stay back in their coun­tries. Who then protects democ­racy?

Then is democ­racy on a slip­pery slope of decline? The rea­sons for seem­ing so are nu­mer­ous and in­tractable.

Democ­racy has hailed as the most still been prefer­able sys­tem for which both in­stant and drawn- out strug­gles have been able to re­store lib­eral demo­cratic at­trac­tions.

And no one can pre­dict what will be the ex­tent and con­tent of trans­for­ma­tion that will take place in coun­tries like the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China and Viet­nam.

It has been stated that th­ese “com­mu­nist states” are not fully com­mu­nist ei­ther, ex­cept in the strict sense of a one- party con­trolled po­lit­i­cal regime.

Nepal con­fronts myr­iad prob­lems at this time.

His­tor­i­cal con­text and a tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal cul­ture em­bed­ded in pat­ri­mo­nial and cli­en­tist prac­tice and be­hav­ior seem poised to over­whelm demo­cratic ethos and prac­tices that stymie the process of demo­cratic evo­lu­tion.

Why au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes fail and revert to the same sit­u­a­tion that had ex­isted be­fore is an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion.

It has been ob­served the world over that any type of au­thor­i­tar­ian regime with limited plu­ral­ism tends to be vul­ner­a­ble to the at­trac­tion of lib­eral democ­racy, although such at­trac­tions soon fade if the agents of change for­get the spirit of revo­lu­tion and adopt the same style and prac­tices used by their au­thor­i­tar­ian pre­de­ces­sors.

More­over, in all regime types, there has been a ten­dency to re­sort to cor­rup­tion, nepo­tism, and klep­toc­racy.

Mil­i­tary or civil­ian rulers have in­vari­ably be­come un­suc­cess­ful be­cause of their fail­ure to grasp changed con­texts.

All South Asian rulers, ex­cept for a few, in his­tory have dis­played such traits.

Even rev­o­lu­tion­ary lead­ers have fallen prey to greed, cor­rup­tion, nepo­tism, and pat­ri­mo­ni­al­ism, which quickly erodes their popular sup­port base and cre­ates an in­sti­tu­tional cri­sis as the fail­ure of lead­ers and par­ties is man­i­fested in the fail­ure of in­sti­tu­tion build­ing.

No De­fin­i­tive An­swer

So is democ­racy in retreat in South Asia? The an­swer can­not be a “yes” or “no,” though emerg­ing trends in most coun­tries, ex­cept In­dia and Sri Lanka, have not been friendly to democ­racy.

Re­cent de­vel­op­ments in the Mal­dives, where the moves of the new gov­ern­ment seem to be both re­pres­sive and vin­dic­tive, do not au­gur well.

The King­dom of Bhutan seems to be mov­ing to­ward de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion but no con­clu­sive state­ment can be made for a full democ­racy.

Plagued by pow­er­ful re­li­gious ex­trem­ism, nei­ther Afghanistan nor Pak­istan shows cred­i­ble trends to­ward democ­racy, though the present gov­ern­ments in both coun­tries have been elected by their peo­ples.

South Asian po­lit­i­cal par­ties are run by a co­terie of per­sons who take de­ci­sions in the name of rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the peo­ple.

Their pre­oc­cu­pa­tion is to re­main in power to fur­ther their per­sonal in­ter­ests, not to use power for peo­ple- ori­ented demo­cratic pro­grams.

Elec­tions, which are the hall­mark of demo­cratic gov­er­nance, have al­most been hi­jacked by fi­nan­cial deal­ers and crim­i­nals, with­out whom politi­cians can­not con­test elec­tions.

In Nepal, po­lit­i­cal par­ties, re­gard­less of their pop­ulism and pre­ten­tious demo­cratic cred­i­bil­ity or even rad­i­cal­ism, com­pete to nom­i­nate busi­ness­peo­ple and other sundry deal­ers as rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

But even this demo­cratic decline has not yet dis­played any al­ter­na­tive to it, as other past regimes also failed to de­liver.

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