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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Wither democracy

Is democracy in the sub-continent taking an ugly shape?

Update : 02 Oct 2023, 11:42 AM

In 1927, my great grandfather MK Gandhi wrote, “Democracy is an impossible thing until power is shared by all, but let not democracy degenerate into mobocracy.” His advice holds good for South Asia, where dispensations exploit democratic canons such as being “of, by, and for the People” as corruptible currency for power.  

“People are the roots, the State is the fruit. If the roots are sweet, the fruit are bound to be sweet,” observed Gandhi. Sub-continental traditions are feudal, patriarchal, and hierarchical, with orthodox societies fractured and fragmented by divisions and disparities like inequality, caste, religion, language, and gender. In Bhutan, the colour of one’s Kabney [shawl], by birth and merit, is a heatmap of the speed of public and private service delivery. Institutionalized divisions provide politicians with heft to demolish democratic safeguards. 

Leviathans, excluding Bhutan, leverage Blasphemy Laws to hold religious minorities down in a caste-based oppression, thwarting constitutional protections with cynical constructions of penal provisions that include prison terms and fines, and even capital punishment in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

The colonial British Raj employed a policy of “divide and rule.” Post-freedom, political parties expertly polarize citizens to compromise and negate the vote. In India, caste-based, regional and religious divisions underpin a cunning calculus to subvert electoral processes. With the Indian General Elections in 2024, orchestrated hate campaigns and sectarian strife are forecasted to yield electoral dividends. Implementing the Women’s Reservation Bill alongside other reservations and delimitation exercises raises gerrymandering concerns. Manipulated Electoral rolls exclude influential minorities and voter groups within constituencies. Half a million Rohingya lost the right to vote in Myanmar’s 2020 elections. Electoral choice is bludgeoned before it appears on the ballot in the Maldives, excluding non-Sunnis. Bereft of even pretend polling, Pashtuns hold most portfolios in Afghanistan’s Taliban government.

We, the supposedly self-governed, live under mob rule, not the rule of law. Increasingly, leaders dare not tell majoritarian electors they are wrong. The Sinhalese dominated Sri Lankan state and mobs have acted in concert since 1981, when 95,000 Tamil historical manuscripts were set ablaze in Jaffna. Weaponizing widespread prejudices, lynch mobs alter constituency demographics in Indian states like Manipur targeting Christians, Dalits brutalized in Nepal and the rest of South Asia, and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar with Buddhist monks spearheading arsonists. Pakistan’s extremist mosque and military complex strong-arm elected governments, exerting power over life and death over Christians, Ahmaddiyas, Shias, and their political protectors. Bangladesh barely keeps extremists from targeting Hindus and Ahmadiyyas and has normalized bloodbaths between the Awami League and BNP in the run up to elections.

Politicians mirror their societies, despite oppressing the very same society they have sprung from after grabbing power. Dissent is vital to healthy democracies. Yet South Asia’s journalists, activists, and opposition leaders are imprisoned and persecuted using draconian laws like sedition, blasphemy, and under laws enacted to prosecute terrorists and gangsters. Justice is denied or delayed as punishment to protesters against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act and National Registry of Citizens. A glaring example is the tragic death of Fr Stan Swamy in prison after the champion of indigenous rights and Parkinson’s patient was denied a water sipper, even as thousands were sent to him by concerned citizens. Democratic pillars are systematically corrupted to render them pliable and ineffective. The few remaining conscientious media organizations are starved for funds and subjected to harassment from enforcement agencies till they are forced to sell out to cronies. Opposition figures are regularly defamed.

While South Asia’s structures satisfy rudimentary democratic criteria, power is concentrated in the hands of elected autocrats, not collaborative democrats. V-Dem classifies most South Asian countries as electoral autocracies. There is no liberal democracy in the region, with Bhutan holding that position briefly in 2021, owing to diminishing transparency in the functioning of the government -- 1.4% of the population opted to migrate to Australia.

Only 16.7% of South Asian legislators are women, compared to 26.7% worldwide. In the patriarchal sub-continent, “machismo” is appealing. Even the vice-like grip of female Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is justified, citing being a good economic provider and by overplaying security. Electorates and diasporas detrimentally influencing democracies abroad are captivated by “strong” leaders and wanting to be seen as belonging to a mighty nation -- a worldwide trend as even western democracies decline morally and ethically. This impulse runs against Gandhian democracy, where “the weakest must have the same opportunity as the strongest” which can “never happen except through the practice of non-violence.” Sri Lanka flirts with authoritarians to the point of economic chaos and near destabilization. Having pleaded “taming the Tamil Tiger,” the Sinhalese majority administration is now turning on Muslims too. Nasheed and Yameen’s internecine power struggle plays out by proxy between Solih and Muizzu in the Maldives. India’s infatuation with Modi’s “strong” premiership justifies the toppling of elected state governments using money and muscle power. The demagoguery of strongmen is based on discrimination and deploying the might of arms and armed forces, not the democratic proliferation of the power of truth, ethics, equality, justice, inclusiveness and compassion. 

The tyranny of democratic governments is more oppressive than that of dictatorships because its fist is sheathed in kid gloves, softening sustained blows while suppressing outcries. Consequently, “the Democracy of [Gandhi’s] conception is wholly inconsistent with the use of physical force for enforcing its will.” Most South Asian democracies heavily depend on military and police benevolence, a martial form of democracy. Too often is Pakistan’s flirtation with democracy interrupted by its armed forces, which feudal politicians have traditionally depended on to prop up their regimes.

Strongmen in lieu of statesmen reinforce asymmetric regional relations, not the equality of sovereign states integral to liberal internationalism. Gandhi called “democracy and the military spirit a contradiction in terms. A democrat relies upon the force, not of the arms his state could flaunt in the face of the world, but on the moral force his state can put at the disposal of the world.” India has played Big Brother and, often, a bully, making its “smaller” neighbours apprehensive of its intentions. Regional power struggles between India and China jeopardize relations in the neighbourhood, intimidating smaller countries like Nepal and frequently forcing them to choose sides. The Maldives and Bangladesh are forced to play a cautious balancing act. Sri Lanka vacillates between a strong neighbour, India, and a distant questionable economic “saviour”, China. 

Gandhi warned “there is no human institution that does not have its dangers. The greater the institution, the greater the chance of abuse. Democracy is a great institution and therefore it is liable to be greatly abused. The remedy, therefore, is not avoidance of democracy, but reduction of possibility of abuse to a minimum.” South Asia’s governments must embrace Gandhian democracy, where compassion and inclusiveness are the creed, and voices of the weakest and of dissenters are heard and respected. Though electoral democracy relies on majorities, liberal democracy is not majoritarian rule. That is mobocracy: Of, by, and for the mob, it is brute force masquerading as democratic power. 

Much of the world today condones corrupted forms of governance thinly veiled as functional democracies. Liberalism is waning, radical extremists are ascendant, and regimes are becoming progressively more authoritarian. Tragically, we the People have accepted this.

Tushar Arun Gandhi is President of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation and author of Let’s Kill Gandhi and The Lost Diary of Kastur, My Ba. This article is syndicated from PoliTweak.

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