Tide Of Time S.Asia’s Political Experiment

 P.Kharel

South Asia has, in the new millennium, witnessed major changes in political practices. The world’s most populous region, with also the largest number of poverty-stricken people and all that go with its inherent consequences, has been treated since several decades to high rhetoric of political slogans and tall promises of improving living standards of an average individual. In fact, this is also the case everywhere else in the region.

With the exception of Nepal, the rest of the eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has a common legacy of being subjected to colonial rule. A common area of similarity that binds all the members is their economy, whatever the potentials that have gone highly untapped or underutilised through mismanagement. 

Corruption is another common feature of the region that boasts of 1.6 billion people. Not only under army rule, one party state or a party-less system but even in the supposedly refined democratic systems, the script was in many ways the same as far as quality of life was concerned. Power might have shifted to new groups and slogans could also ring new but the basic functioning has not changed. Political cartelling in its worst forms are witnessed with frustrating frequency.

But then this is the case not just in this part of the world. Comparisons, at times, can be odious. It is, however, a fact that the situation in South Asia fares better than many other corners of the world. This no doubt is small consolation at a time when man has understood nature and its bounties dramatically better than previously and new feats in science, medicine, technology and the like have tossed up opportunities as well as disparities in the rat race for gaining the upper hand in setting global agendas and obtaining maximum economic gains even if it means at the expense of poorer nations.

Principles & practice

Political parties are part and parcel of democratic systems in the new century. They represent various shades of ideologies, interests and approaches to development and governance. Most countries, today, witness political parties operating as one of the requisites of democracy. But this also does not automatically mean full-fledged democracy. 

For even authoritarian regimes pretend tolerating rival political parties, though they do not hesitate to harass the opposition and create hurdles against opponents. This tells of the misuse of power and, at the same time, unmasks the true colours of rulers. In a communist state, only one party operates; other parties are not allowed to function. One-party states are considered undemocratic. 

In the SAARC region today, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are witness to political parties of different stripes. This was not so in the earlier decades after World War II. No country in the region had had an uninterrupted practice in democratic governance in the past seven decades. 

The Maldives was basically a one-party state until 2008. Bhutan has, of late, a semblance of multiparty polity. Democracy was ushered in Nepal in February 1951 and with it political parties functioned for a decade. However, they all were banned for the next 29 years until they were restored in April 1990. In this regard, the best record in South Asia is probably that of India, except for the infamous and inordinate 1975-77 state of emergency rule that sends shivers down the minds and bodies of many Indians who experienced the emergency excesses during that period of Indira Gandhi’s autocratic rule. Regular elections and change of guards in the seat of power and governance are among other chief characteristics of a democracy. Dismissing opposition-ruled states in India and clamping a kind of emergency rule vainly disguised as “presidential rule” was also common particularly in the decades of the 1970s and 1980s. 

Pakistan has had military coups and dismissal of elected governments by executive presidential orders. In Bangladesh, all but four newspapers were banned in less than three years of its independence. Military takeovers also featured in Bangladesh, derailing democratic process. Bangladesh in the initial years saw military coups, massive ban on the press and indiscriminate detention of political opponents of the ruling cliques. The Maldives had only one political party during the three decades by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom until organised political pluralism was officially recognised. News media were severely discouraged.

News media is virtually a state monopoly in Bhutan. No one dares write anything remotely critical of the absolute monarchy. Although 125,000 members of the Nepali community became refugees for years in Nepal before most of them agreed to be settled in various Western countries, Nepalis still make a sizable presence in Bhutan whose defence and foreign affairs are based on active advice from India.

Educated unemployment is another major cause of deep concern in the whole region, including Nepal. The best of youth aspire for employment in foreign lands, as also indicated by billions of dollars constituting the remittances lubricating the economy of the SAARC countries.

Long-Ruling Leaders

Considered as one of the main manifestations of pluralism, political parties in the 21st century are an essential element for democracy. Just as colonialism and all the suppression and exploitation that went with it until the 1960s was taken by many militarily powerful nations as natural for “liberating barbarous” and “misled” people to the civilisation of colonist rulers.

South Asia, which represents one-fifth of humanity, is a region where all individual countries, today, uphold multiparty political systems. But major parties by and large have leaders heading their organisations for decades. 

Bangladesh has had only two prime ministers since the first general elections held more than 25 years ago after Hussein Mohammed Ershad was compelled to step down in the wake of huge street demonstrations for months. First led by Mujibur Rahman, Awami League has had as its top leader Hasina Wajed, daughter of Mujibur Rahman who was killed in a military takeover in 1975. Bangladesh Nationalist Party, too, has had only one president, Khaleda Zia, widow of Ziaur Rahman who was killed in a military coup.

One of the oldest parties in the world, the Indian National Congress has since independence in 1947 been largely headed by the Nehru-Gandhi family members, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and now Sonia Gandhi, with Rahul Gandhi waiting in the wings to take over at a time he thinks appropriate. Sonia Gandhi has led the organisation for well over 20 years. 

In Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali led the Pakistan People’s Party. His daughter Benazir succeeded him, holding the reins of the organisation for more than a quarter of a century. When Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, her son was declared the formal president while her husband Zardari took the actual reins as the working president. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been at the head of his party for more than three decades.

Sri Lanka’s long ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party, too, was ruled for several decades by the Bandaranaike family members. Afghanistan, too, suffers from the bondage of political leaders who seem to have wiped the words “step aside” from their dictionary.

The scenario is a telling commentary on the lack of positively democratic political culture in practice. This entails inherent problems of a wide variety in terms of infusing youth dynamism, fresh ideas and leadership opportunities. 

 

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