South Asia’s falling democratic index
Harsh V. Pant
October 03, 2007
Source: The Indian Express
If one were to suggest that a democracy deficit is gradually emerging in South Asia, there is a danger of being ignored completely given that the world’s largest democracy is located in the region. But looking around South Asia today, one is confronted with a number of weak states with decaying democratic institutions and an entire region in turmoil as a consequence. This can have serious consequences for regional and global stability.
Burma is the latest in the list of states in the region where political churning is rising and the supporters of the status quo are finding it difficult to come to terms with a movement led by the much revered monks. Pakistan, under Pervez Musharraf’s leadership, has steadfastly refused to return to democracy for the last several years. Even the recent upheavals on the streets have not forced Musharraf to re-evaluate his stance on democracy even though the protests have acquired pro-democracy overtones and exposed Musharraf’s own democratic pretensions.
In the east, there’s Bangladesh. A country that was widely considered a relatively stable democracy in the Islamic world until a few years ago is currently under emergency rule, with parliamentary elections having been postponed indefinitely. Despite warnings from the international community that any move toward military rule would have adverse consequences for Bangladesh, the army-backed administration has tightened its grip over the country, vowing to uproot corruption and violence in electoral politics as well as to effectively tackle Islamist militancy. This has led to the arrest of several high-ranking politicians on charges of graft and even the execution of a few high-profile Islamist militants.
Sri Lankan democracy is under attack from the Tamil Tigers who have demonstrated their growing military prowess by using air strikes against air force bases and oil and gas facilities in the country. The peace process is in shambles and the two sides are preparing for a long haul with the unravelling of the 2002 Norway-brokered ceasefire agreement. The LTTE exploited the ceasefire to expand its offensive air capabilities and has displayed little intention of honouring its commitments under the pact. The demand for sovereignty by the Tigers will only grow louder after LTTE’s recent demonstration of their military capability, limited though it remains. Caught between the hardening resolve of the state and the increasing confidence of the rebels, Sri Lankans are facing a rapidly deteriorating human rights environment with abductions, killings, and intimidation of the media at an all-time high.
Nepal is still struggling to come to terms with its new political institutions. More than a year after the king was forced to give up his emergency powers and restore the elected parliament, things have yet to settle down. The Maoists joined the government after the signing of the peace deal only to leave it a few days ago, making the scheduled elections to the Constituent Assembly in November virtually impossible.
The apparent failure of parliamentary democracy and the radicalisation of politics in several states in South Asia throws into sharp relief the danger posed by the rapid decay of political institutions in many emerging democracies. The political ferment in South Asia continues to provide a fertile ground for all kinds of extremist ideologies, be it radical Islam, Hindu nationalism, Tamil separatism, and Maoism. The inability of political institutions to bear the weight of rising expectations in a region that contains more than one-sixth of humanity, and is situated at the junction of three important subregions of the Asian continent, should no longer be ignored as it can have far-reaching consequences for the world at large.
This political instability should be particularly troubling for India which is witnessing rising turmoil all around its borders. India’s long-term ambitions to emerge as a major power on the international stage will no doubt be assessed in terms of its strategic capacity to deal with the myriad crises in its own backyard. A policy of “splendid isolation” is not an option for India. Its desire to emerge as a major global player will remain just that, a desire, unless it engages with its immediate neighbourhood more meaningfully and plays an important role in restoring trust in democratic institutions in the region. India’s primary interest lies in stabilising the situation around its periphery. It needs to leverage its influence in its neighbouring states more effectively and prevent South Asia from becoming another Middle East — a combustible mix of tyranny, stagnation and extremism.
The writer teaches at King’s College London