Is democracy in retreat?

  • The answer cannot be a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, though recent trends have not been friendly to democracy
- Lok Raj Baral
Is democracy in retreat?

Jun 10, 2015-

The democratic project confronts myriad challenges in South Asia. The concept itself is being revisited to learn more aggressive interventions and reemphasis nuance and practice. Some countries—like India and Sri Lanka, both with British colonial backgrounds—seem to be an exception in one important respect: continuity and change. India has evolved many institutions on the pattern of past exercises and Sri Lanka has managed to provide a semblance of democratic continuity despite tumultuous changes in the biography of this island country.

Other countries—like Pakistan and Bangladesh, carved out of first India and then Pakistan (Bangladesh)—have not matched the former two because of both ideological and institutional dilemmas. The very basis of Pakistan was religion, which, in a modern sense, was/is anathema to democratic ideology. It can neither adopt universally-accepted values of democracy nor reassure minorities as other dominant groups claim themselves the guardians of the nation state and democracy.

Taking to the grassroots

In South Asia, democratic exercises have become more ritualistic than people-centric and substantive. The procedural part, which makes a democratic process, needs to be simultaneously transformatory and substantive by showing its inclusive character and performance.

A new thrust of late has been given to making democracy meaningful by adhering to the principle and practice of ‘self-rule’ and ‘shared rule’. These concepts have been used to focus greater demands for local-level participation in governance and development. Some countries that have embraced federalism are particularly enamored by these concepts because of the regimes’ failure to distribute power and resources to the local levels.

India has amended its constitution (73rd amendment) to take politics to the grassroots while Bangladesh, which is not a federal country, has tried to alleviate poverty and reduce its population growth through various governmental and non-governmental measures. The Grameen Bank experiment is considered to be a novel attempt that encourages poor people to get short-term credit to take up various kinds of productive activities. Nepal too has vowed to be a federal country with the hope of transforming existing state structures into different layers (federal units) of governance.  

The issues of national integration/disintegration and democratic development are now intertwined, because democracy’s inclusiveness and empowerment of all sections of the people can contribute to national integration while exclusionary policies and practices, as have happened in the past, will invite alienation. In most South Asian countries, peoples are not at ease with the continued domination of certain privileged caste and class sections, thus sometimes driving them to opt for movements for autonomy and even for separation. There has been resistance to the continued domination of high caste and class groups, who have all along been in the privileged positions forming elite groups in politics and economies. These groups also constitute the middle class or upper middle class, though the scope of the middle class is now extended to the beneficiaries of crony capitalism and clientelism in politics.

A rising middle-class

Thus, the emergence of a middle class and democracy also needs to be revisited. Although South Asia’s middle class may bring economic and social transformation, its new traits and source of earnings, plus linkages between politicians and the mafia economy, have bred systemic aberrations. These are evident in the elections of parties with the help of crony capitalists and the mafia. Such levers of power would never draft pro-poor policies, let alone enforce them.

So the extension of the middle class may not necessarily be conducive for the consolidation of democracy. The new middle class population is not likely to be committed to the values of democracy nor can it undergo sufferings and sacrifices to safeguard these values. For them, politics is a less attractive domain. In Nepal, four million Nepali youth (poor) work as labourers in foreign countries and the children of nouveau riche, or the so-called middle class, do not prefer to stay back in their countries. Who then protects democracy?

Then is democracy on a slippery slope of decline? The reasons for seeming so are numerous and intractable. Democracy has still been hailed as the most preferable system for which both instant and drawn-out struggles have been able to restore liberal democratic attractions. And no one can predict what will be the extent and content of transformation that will take place in countries like the People’s Republic of China and Vietnam. It has been stated that these ‘communist states’ are not fully communist either, except in the strict sense of a one-party controlled political regime

Nepal confronts myriad problems at this time. Historical context and a traditional political culture embedded in patrimonial and clientist practice and behaviour seem poised to overwhelm democratic ethos and practices that stymie the process of democratic evolution.

Why authoritarian regimes fail and revert to the same situation that had existed before is an interesting question. It has been observed the world over that any type of authoritarian regime with limited pluralism  tends to be vulnerable to the attraction of liberal democracy, although such attractions soon fade if the agents of change forget the spirit of revolution and adopt the same style and practices used by their authoritarian predecessors.

Moreover, in all regime types, there has been a tendency to resort to corruption, nepotism, and kleptocracy. Military or civilian rulers have invariably become unsuccessful because of their failure to grasp changed contexts. All South Asian rulers, except for a few, in history have displayed such traits. Even revolutionary leaders have fallen prey to greed, corruption, nepotism, and patrimonialism, which quickly erodes their popular support base and creates an institutional crisis as the failure of leaders and parties is manifested in the failure of institution building.

No definitive answer

So is democracy in retreat in South Asia? The answer cannot be a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, though emerging trends in most countries, except India and Sri Lanka, have not been friendly to democracy. Recent developments in the Maldives, where the moves of the new government seem to be both repressive and vindictive, do not augur well. The Kingdom of Bhutan seems to be moving towards democratisation but no conclusive statement can be made for a full democracy. Plagued by powerful religious extremism, both Afghanistan and Pakistan do not show credible trends towards democracy, though the present governments in both countries have been elected by their peoples.

South Asian political parties are run by a coterie of persons who take decisions in the name of representatives and the people. Their preoccupation is to remain in power to further their personal interests, not to use power for people-oriented democratic programmes. Elections, which are the hallmark of democratic governance, have almost been hijacked by financial dealers and criminals, without whom politicians cannot contest elections.

In Nepal, political parties, regardless of their populism and pretentious democratic credibility or even radicalism, compete to nominate businessmen and other sundry dealers as representatives. But even this democratic decline has not yet displayed any alternative to it, as other past regimes also failed to deliver.

Baral is the author of a number of books on Nepal

Published: 11-06-2015 08:31

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