Democracy has delivered little in South Asia – Salman Bashir, Pakistan’s Ex-Foreign Sec

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Salman Bashir |

South Asia is one of the most densely populated and among the poorest regions of the world. Its socio-economic indicators are abysmal. This vast region has not been able to remain in step with Asia’s mainstream development, signified by China, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia.

Growing trade wars signify a wholly narrow-minded view of societal interests at odds with the reality of global interdependence. 

Pretext and pretensions aside, the societies — riven as they are by distinctions of castes, class, beliefs and ethnicities — remain mired in medieval culture, traditions and a mindset of petty fiefdoms, where a few continue to rule over and exploit the teeming millions. The form and shape of governance have changed but the essence is the same.

South Asia’s tryst with destiny by democratic governance has not delivered much in terms of progress or justice. A five-year cycle of general elections provides an opportunity for the poorest to vote into power mostly the same elite, irrespective of their political labels. And so a system of cruelty, exploitation and injustice is legitimized in perpetuity.

Read more: India leads Internet shutdowns in South Asia

In short, democracy has become a notion or, at best, a process of maintaining the status quo. Underneath this veneer, the social cauldron keeps on boiling, with the poor recognizing their miseries as fate and intrinsic to the order of nature. Increasingly, this is becoming unsustainable.

The societal fabric is being impacted by factors of demography, economy and technology. Technology, especially information technology, is a huge enabler as it empowers individuals and provides them an opportunity to be more aware of the world and thus of the contrasts and context of their own existence.

Television talk shows, social media and the internet age have created the means for an awareness explosion. Hence, unending lament and public outrage expressed in high decibels has brought into question the credibility of the institutions of governance and of the political elite.

In Pakistan, this month’s general elections and related intensification of political activity is accompanied by a plethora of allegations of corruption and corrupt practices. In the circumstances, the judiciary has taken on the responsibility of sorting fact from fiction and is making a huge effort to sanitize politics and governance.

A five-year cycle of general elections provides an opportunity for the poorest to vote into power mostly the same elite, irrespective of their political labels.

Unfortunately, the credibility of nearly all institutions of governance is at an all-time low. Therefore, the question is can the means of ensuring accountable governance succeed in delivering a relatively pure form of democracy or democratic outcomes that correspond to the aspirations of the people? This remains an open question.

The liberal elite advocate the notion of undiluted democracy and civilian supremacy. While these notions are laudable, they can work only in ideal conditions. They cannot merely be used as a pretext or an enabler for the privileged to capture power and thereby control the state’s resources.

Read more: Indian Democracy at Crossroads

It is therefore doubtful that the prescriptions of democratic governance and their associated rituals can provide the answers to societal turbulence or instill hope for a better future. A creeping sense of futility is adding to despair and despondency.

In neighboring India, the situation is no better. The largest democracy in the world is playing with politics of religious fanaticism, with pogroms against minorities. In the run-up to elections in 2019, it is feared that ethno-religious prejudices will be ramped up to win votes. Again, we see a privileged class bent on capturing and retaining power at all costs.

Globally, the ideals of democracy are increasingly under attack and have been substantially undermined in what once constituted the heartland of the liberal order.

No one has neat answers to the crisis of governance. Political systems so far taken for granted are becoming dysfunctional and related institutions increasingly falling into disrepute. The global economic order has also been shaken to its core by recent waves of political turmoil. Growing trade wars signify a wholly narrow-minded view of societal interests at odds with the reality of global interdependence.

In short, what South Asia is undergoing is no longer an exception. But it need not be so. Ideals, values, morality and, above all, justice must be upheld as the core of any political dispensation. Only a new and universal wave of enlightenment valuing common humanity can prevent mankind from regressing to medieval times.

Salman Bashir was one of Pakistan’s ace diplomats. In a career spanning over three decades, Mr. Bashir reached the top position of Foreign Secretary. Among other appointments, he had been Ambassador to China and High Commissioner to India. This article was first published in Arab News and has been republished here with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.


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