India’s own diminishing democracy and rising corporate oligarchy is likely to have a cascading effect on the region.
Postcolonial South Asia might superficially seem more settled than postcolonial Africa, but it has always seethed with inner tensions that have seen many bloody wars, both internal and cross-border. Many of the region’s tribulations were bequeathed by the erstwhile Raj that drew and redrew identities and maps at will, leaving deep and bleeding gashes on the land, but many were also born as the new nations evolved political institutions and systems, choosing between democracy, authoritarianism, and martial rule. Thus, we have the world’s largest electoral democracy in India, but also Pakistan’s troubled democracy where the military holds all the cards. Sri Lanka was racked for decades by a brutal civil war while the former monarchies of Bhutan and Nepal introduced democratic elections only two decades ago. Maldives was a dictatorship and held its first real elections in 2008. Bangladesh has descended into an increasingly intolerant single-party autocracy.
South Asia also grapples with the constant menace of terrorism, with Pakistan the nerve centre for many extremist Islamist groups who pose one of the region’s greatest challenges to peace, uninterrupted development, progress, and modernism, not least along the wracked Pakistan-India and Pakistan-Afghan borders.
“Unlike, say, postcolonial South-East Asia, the region [of South Asia] has failed to provide basic infrastructure to its citizens, with essentials such as roads, public transport, or potable water still falling short of global standards. These countries are thus unable to shake off their Third World tag. ”
While both growth and potential for growth remain strong, led by India, poverty and inequality persist in South Asia. With high unemployment, thousands migrate for jobs, even as vital health, nutrition, and real literacy numbers crawl. Unlike, say, postcolonial South-East Asia, the region has failed to provide basic infrastructure to its citizens, with essentials such as roads, public transport, or potable water still falling short of global standards. These countries are thus unable to shake off their Third World tag. Regional trade, which could have been an economic saviour, languishes because of the overall lack of mutual trust. Trade among South Asian countries is about 5 per cent of the total regional trade. India has preferred one-on-one relationships rather than fostering regional organisations such as SAARC. In recent years, China has stepped in to try and usurp the leadership of South Asia, something India has taken for granted as its mantle.
It is against this rather messy background that elections are up in five South Asian nations this year. What can one expect? Two new and ugly phenomena have emerged, which, in addition to the poor development indices indicated above, threaten to slowly convert the region into a grouping of near banana republics.
First is the slow slide in democratic principles and the emergence of strong populist leaders. If it is Narendra Modi in India, in Sri Lanka the brothers Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa alternated power between themselves for well-nigh 15 years until last year’s coup. When Sheikh Hasina returns to power in Bangladesh, it will be her fifth term. She is accused of ruthlessly cutting down all opposition, and it is feared that she will make Bangladesh a one-party nation. Pakistan has never been a model of democracy. Across the region, press freedoms are routinely threatened and civil society targeted.
Second, and possibly more dangerous, is the proliferation of a new breed of predatory capitalists who encourage highly centralised governments that further their interests without question in return for financial favours.
As South Asia’s largest country, economically and spatially, India’s own diminishing democracy and rising corporate oligarchy is likely to have a cascading effect on the region and lead to prolonged regional instability and conflict. It is in this context that the old idea of South Asia eventually evolving into a new EU of prosperous, mutually supportive, and stable democracies now seems a distant dream.