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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

South Asia: Dilemmas of democratic governance – Salman Bashir

Pakistan’s former Foreign Secretary and former Ambassador of Pakistan to India and China presents an economically bleak picture of South Asia, and questions the utility of democratic governance to bring development in the region; especially at a time when it seems to have been cast aside in the West, with the rise of illiberalism under Trump’s America and right-wing nationalism in Europe.

Deliverance by democracy has been the grundnorm (basic norm) for political governance in much of South Asia. However, the application of this prescription has not resulted in good governance; South Asia has been left far behind in Asia’s march to progress and prosperity, billions of peoples of this region remain mired in vicious cycles of poverty, misery, and injustice.

Realizing democratic ideals remains a forlorn hope. Endless series of general elections have only perpetuated the unjust status quo. This raises the question whether this system of political governance is suited to the ethos of the people or to their socio-economic circumstances. Seasons of general elections in Pakistan this year and in India in 2019 have put on hold rational and routine governance.

Political expediencies have overshot all other considerations. The political discourse in Pakistan has centered on accountability. Judiciary was obliged to step in to sift allegations of corruption and corrupt practices. The standard theme of the liberal elite has been that ills of democratic governance require even higher doses of democracy.

Course correction for accountable governance has nonetheless, caused collateral damage- discrediting of state institutions and veritable impairment of the functioning of the civil service. India has been a democracy for some seventy years. Democratic governance has produced no panacea for the ordinary mortals. A hardline Hindu extremist government was voted into power in 2014.

True it enjoyed legitimacy of the ballot, but flagrantly violated basic democratic norms and values of humanity. It is possible to vote into power criminals and strongmen or bring into existence by democratic legitimacy, fascist regimes. The manner in which India has violated human rights, run pogroms against minorities and used brutal means to stifle dissent is a glaring example of legitimized misgovernance.

Muslim and Pakistan bashing is anticipated to be a convenient tool for the RSS and BJP to extend their political shelf life. In other South Asian states, such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, democracy has delivered little. The talent and creative spirit of the people has remained tied to experiments of democratic governance and not been utilized for optimum progress and prosperity.

Extra-regional powers have provided safe havens to political protagonists of choice and accommodated their ill-gotten wealth. This has brought into serious disrepute the entire value chain of ideas associated with democracy.

External hands have found it expedient to use political parties as proxies for promoting their own agendas. Indian interference in the internal affairs of Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bangladesh illustrates this point. Very often extra-regional powers have provided safe havens to political protagonists of choice and accommodated their ill-gotten wealth. This has brought into serious disrepute the entire value chain of ideas associated with democracy.

Recent years have witnessed a wholesale retreat from democratic ideals in the heartlands of the free world. Democratic means have produced outcomes in western societies, which are in variance with the liberal order. Illiberalism has spawned narrow nationalism, xenophobia, neo-tribalism, indicative of regressive trends that will impact humanity for a long time and could result in uncontrolled chaos, strife, and wars.

The political and economic systems are becoming dysfunctional. Fascination with authoritarian figures and strong regimes is gaining traction. The anti-establishment mood is pervasive in developed societies and institutions of governance are discredited. Any easy explanation for this reversal is the transformation of societies all around. Three distinct factors are ‘demography’, ‘generational shift’ and ‘technology’.

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The baby boomers, a generation that was born after the Second World War and shaped the previous century is fading out. A generational shift is in the offing. Technological advancements have gained a rapid pace and are impacting individuals, families, and societies as a whole. The digital age has not only sharpened awareness but also empowered individuals.

Technology is a huge enabler and for the less developed societies may prove to be a great equalizer. These dynamics of change are also impacting South Asia with considerable consequences for governance and development. Those who will read the trend lines will have an opportunity to ride the waves of transformation to a better future.

Others may simply be overwhelmed and cave into chaos caused by the disruptive effects of demography and technology. Is South Asia prepared for the challenges of the twenty-first century or will it wilt further into crass oblivion? South Asia is one the most densely populated regions of the world. It is home to almost two billion people with varying ethnicity, religions, customs and traditions.

Illiberalism has spawned narrow nationalism, xenophobia, neo-tribalism, indicative of regressive trends that will impact humanity for a long time and could result in uncontrolled chaos, strife, and wars.

Despite these differences, there is something distinct, which is more than geographic or cultural- a sense of South Asian identity; a common theme running through the maze of individual societal and pluralistic complexities. Contiguous geography confers ecological and subterranean homogeneity- be it climate change; depleting water resource; or geological shifts.

On the whole, South Asia has missed out on Asia’s march to economic development. Japan, China, South Korea and the ASEAN Ten have leaped forward and tilted the center of gravity of global politics towards Asia-Pacific, compelling a reversal of the tide of history with accompanying strategic notations. Development correlates directly with history and culture.

In a broad sense, culture is a state of mind- outlook towards oneself, society, life and the cosmos. Inert cultures lack the spark to ignite creativity or inventions and are mostly contented with what is taken as a given order of nature. Seeking personal contentment, especially in conditions of scarcity and adversity perpetuate deference, self-abnegation and a lack of will to strive for personal or social well-being.

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Submission to what is construed as divinely ordained fate is one aspect that would explain the political and social morass and lack of societal progress. It also explains reconciling to what is given – existing political and economic systems. Historically, for centuries the region remained the domain of principalities and fiefdoms over-lorded by powerful invaders or insiders that established the dynastic rule.

The British Raj was replaced through a series of legislative measures; granting the people the concept of self-governance. Nevertheless, democratic institutions that gradually sprouted, under constitutional dispensations, did not radically transform the culture and the habits of obeisance to the strong and powerful.

The system of governance suited the elite, who were generally interested in perpetuating the status quo. The feudalist and the rich grabbed political power through democratic rituals, espousing democratic ideals, but interpreted wholly to suit their own vested class interests. Take seventy years of undiluted democracy in India.

 Despite these differences, there is something distinct, which is more than geographic or cultural- a sense of South Asian identity; a common theme running through the maze of individual societal and pluralistic complexities.

The political class mostly remained confined to considerations of the dynasty and could not deliver for the poor the socio-economic transformation that was, for instance, achieved by China or even the city-state of Singapore.

It is fashionable for India to speak about its rapid economic growth, and that it will by the end of 2019 overtake United Kingdom in terms of its GDP size, or that it will in fifteen to twenty years become the second-largest economy of the world. Yet, the vast majority of Indians languish in poverty with no prospect of deliverance to better days.

It is estimated that there are some 119 US dollar billionaires in India, with an aggregate worth of $440 bn – more than any other country, except the US and China. According to James Crabtree, in his article “The Staggering Rise of India’s Super-Rich” in the Guardian on 10 July 2018, “India’s new hyper-wealthy elite have accumulated more money, more quickly, than their plutocratic peers in almost any country in history”.

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“Narendra Modi won an overwhelming election victory in 2014, having promised to put a stop to the spate of corruption scandals that had dogged India for much of the previous decade… voters turned to Narendra Modi…hoping he would deliver a new era of clean governance and rapid growth, ridding India of a growing reputation for crony capitalism…Modi pledged to end a situation in which the country’s ultra-wealthy – sometimes called “Bollygarchs” –  appeared to live by one set of rules, while India’s 1.3 billion people operate by another….

The political class mostly remained confined to considerations of dynasty and could not deliver for the poor the socio-economic transformation that was, for instance, achieved by China or even the city state of Singapore.

Modi is fighting the perception that India is unable to bring such men to heel, and that it has been powerless to respond to the rise of this new moneyed elite and the scandals that have come with them…. India remains a poor country… The top 10 % of earners now take around 55% of all national income – the highest rate for any large country in the world.” Crabtree concludes that, “India has created a model of development in which the proceeds of growth flow unusually quickly to the very top.

Yet perhaps because Indian society has long been deeply stratified, this dramatic increase in inequality has not received as much global attention as it deserves.” “ Many politicians also became astoundingly rich, and would have made the Forbes list had their holdings not been hidden carefully in shell companies and foreign banks… Rapid economic growth increased the value of political power, and what could be extracted from it….

India’s 2014 election cost close to $5 bn… Politicians spend money to fund campaigns, but also on handing out favors, jobs and cash to constituents, “it’s sort of unholy nexus”…. This nexus between business and politics lies at the heart of the third problem of India’s billionaire Raj, namely the boom-bust cycle of its industrial economy.”’

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It is perhaps not fair to lay the blame for gross iniquities, corruption and scandals entirely on the doors of democratic governance of the kind we have in this part of the world. Compare the situation in India with that of China, which succeeded in not only becoming the second largest economy of the world in less than forty years, but also emancipated over 800 million people from abject poverty.

The political and governance systems deliver, and with wise leadership having a vision of “national rejuvenation,” China has been able to make requisite course corrections that are entirely suited to its national needs and in accordance with the aspirations of its people. Pakistan’s – Westminster style – political system is now being renewed consecutively for the third time.

There are stark parallels with the situation in India. The scourge of dynastic politics, the oligarchs and feudals is one such parallel. Iniquities and disparities together with injustice and a failed system of governance have created a situation that is absolutely unsustainable. The democracy and its defense have been the watchwords of the political class and the liberal elite.

All debates and discourse on television screens and social media rivets around democracy as if this was synonymous to the very existence of the state and welfare of the people. Yes, democracy has served to give the elite a stake in the state, but has it really delivered or promises to deliver on the expectations of the people? The people, poor and mostly illiterate stamp into political life, lifeless political symbols denoting various political parties.

The so-called game of ‘electables’ spread around the electioneering chessboard, assuring the elite to come into power by merely changing labels. The Parliament composed as such has no interest to discuss the issues of the ordinary citizens. Never in the history of Parliamentary democracy in Pakistan have the problems of the citizens such as health and education, job creation or any other pertinent matter such as water, sanitation etc. found any echo in the hallowed halls of the Assembly.

Then there is the question of intent-legislate yes but to what effect? To pass laws or adopt rules that will facilitate or make life easy for the ordinary citizen or pass cumbersome acts that will ensure corruption-free governance, but only make it foolproof, so that the corrupt can never be caught or brought to account.

The added disadvantage is that it induces self-paralysis in governance. The civil service system has over the years been rendered ineffective. The politicization of the civil service has rendered useless the executive arm. It is so bad that the higher judiciary has to intervene in nearly every domain to get things going.

In this extraordinary labyrinth of the game of power, the state suffers. Challenges multiply, societal expectations surge with awareness brought by the media and the internet, exercise of democratic right to elect representatives of choice offer hope, but all is lost in the din and chaos of democracy at work.

Pakistan cannot afford to neglect any longer the critical issues of survival and development. We have already wasted nearly five decades of our existence as an independent state. Sometimes to regional ventures, accountability and removing corruption, or to intrigues designed only to enable elite capture of state resources.

democratic governance

Clarity of direction and national purpose have been obfuscated by theoretical and self-created deceptive debates by an oligarchy that wishes to maintain its stranglehold on the state and stifle creativity and initiatives of the people of this resource-rich country.

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Taking other examples of South Asia, consider Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, where the prevalence of democratically elected governments has been extremely problematic. Under the sway of India’s hegemonic impulses, these countries have had to contend with external demands and expectations, which are not necessarily authentic.

Taken together, prospects of regional cooperation under the SAARC have been rendered ineffective. Political dispensations, at least some, have sought legitimacy not by the ballot, but acquiescence of extra-regional major powers. Foreign agendas delivered by local parties with funding and assurances of asylum and safe havens abroad, a sad commentary on democratic governance in South Asia, indeed.

Yes, democracy has served to give the elite a stake in the state, but has it really delivered or promises to deliver on the expectations of the people?

Societies in South Asia are being impacted by globalization, technological advancements, demographic trends and the generational shifts. Rising expectations and lack of effective avenues to address the iniquities and injustice together with pervasive, increasing poverty and inequalities of class and castes are creating an explosive situation. The political systems and associated governance models provide little hope for redressing the situation or restoring hope and removing despondency.

Dilemma of South Asia democracy

All of this is being further amplified by the demolishing of the democratic ideals in the heartlands of democracy. Pretensions of living by or even adhering to democratic ideals seem to have been cast aside in the west. Illiberalism has caught on a life of its own in developed societies. Under the Trump Administration, the United States is in the process of unburdening itself of the heavy baggage of maintaining global peace and security, it has carried for almost a century.

US national interests require redefining domestic and foreign policy. The US is prepared to jettison the baggage of democratic values, that it so virtuously and vehemently upheld around the world. The election of President Trump is a watershed in the history of the free world. It conforms to US national requirements and takes off the halo of the earlier prescriptions of governance. Europe is not far behind.

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Rise of narrow nationalism, neo-tribalism, xenophobia, protectionist trends and the triumphalism associated with rise of the far-right connotes the dawn of a new age in international relations. The historians will see unmistakable signs of regression- a new historical cycle that will again see the triumph of power over ideals. National interests will trump all other considerations.

But in South Asia, a somewhat similar story will continue to be followed with a cast that is perhaps not imbued by a sense of national purpose, but rather self- interest. One wonders if almost 2 billion people of this region, worthy inheritors of a glorious past and who are imaginative, intelligent and creative cannot find answers to their own daily issues and plan a better future for their children.

This will happen if a certain sensitivity to national requirements supersedes all else. It is time to delete recipes and prescriptions that do not work and find national and local answers to all that relates to governance and the organization of state systems.

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.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.