Saturday, November 24, 2007

Hope for South Asia

A friend of mine based in the US asked me what was happening in the news scene in South Asia. While preparing myself to answer, it struck me that today’s South Asia is in a state of utter turmoil. In Sri Lanka, the ethnic conflict had reached a point of no return, with both the antagonists — the government and the insurgent LTTE – upping the ante to a full scale civil war. In Nepal, a much-awaited path to genuine elections has been derailed, raising dangerous omens of a return to strife that had engulfed the nation not long ago. In Pakistan, emergency has been declared even as extremist violence has reared its head. In Myanmar, the military junta has reacted ruthlessly to peaceful demonstrations by monks demanding the overthrow of autocracy. In Bangladesh, the premier political parties’ leaders are in prison as the democratic process has been suspended. The embers of violence in Afghanistan are still burning and there seems no end to internecine conflict. In India, there have been incidents of turmoil that are a dime-a-dozen in areas where the state has failed in its constitutional duties.

The question that one must ask is what explains this high degree of political turmoil? To a large extent, democracy has also not stabilised in most of the South Asian countries as one would want it to. India and Sri Lanka are exceptions, where the formal process of democracy has been pretty much intact and stable, while it is debatable if the substantive outcomes of such a liberal democracy have been robust enough.

Political scientists and theorists who have worked on liberal democracy have tried to link this up with the concept of economic development as they try to find answers to the dichotomy of democracy versus autocracy as related to the economic situation in a particular nation. One of the more comprehensive works in this regard was done by a group of political scientists, prominently Adam Przeworski from Columbia University, who used statistical techniques to delineate the relationship between democracy and economic development. Is it the case that democracy thrives only in countries that have reached stages of modernised development? This is the question that they ask and try to answer. This question is very much related to South Asia, as this region remains markedly part of the underdeveloped Third World.

Przeworski, et al, through the means of holistic statistical analysis of the type of political governance in nations in the past century, make a remarkable finding. They find that there is no linear relationship between democracy and economic development (in contrast to what modernisation theorists would aver) and that dictatorship can also thrive in economically developed countries, while democracy is seen to be more stable in more economically developed countries. In essence, Przeworski points out that it is very difficult for the less economically developed countries to have democratic institutions that tend to mature only when economic development has reached a sufficient level. They also analyse this finding with respect to other variables of development apart from growth, such as inequality.

While these findings seem relevant to South Asia, there is a major problem. India is a major “outlier” in this statistic-based finding. Using the same tools of measurement of economic development, the theorists find that the presence of democratic institutions and governance in India, despite its rather poor economic performance, is a major surprise because it is very rare to find such a thing in other places across the world. This admission is startling, for one cannot just ignore India as one outlier in the comity of nations. After all, India is the second most populous country in the world and hosts nearly one-sixth of the world’s populace, who cannot be ignored in totality as an “outlier”.

So, one would be tempted to reject the entire methodology of statistically determining theorisations, but personally this writer finds one grain of truth in what the theorists are saying, when weighing the findings with what is happening in South Asia and elsewhere. The case of India has to be understood thoroughly for construing the relative stability of democratic institutions in the country’s existence since independence. A frontal reason for such stability is the agency that drove India’s national movement for self-determination. This national movement privileged the presence of democratic norms and liberal values and instituted these norms in the Constitution after a full-fledged debate in a Constituent Assembly that was formed just before independence. There were problems, the result of which was the partition of the Indian nation, but otherwise, the robustness of democracy since independence owes to this privileging of democratic norms that set the stage for the birth of the Indian nation.

These norms ensured that despite low levels of economic development and growth, values such as political liberty and the ability to choose its political representatives have been institutionalised in India’s populace. The sheer numbers of the poor who vote and demand their political privileges is testimony of the same. One would have argued that the substantive norms of democratic functioning has not quite percolated into this consciousness for political liberties, but as decentralisation of power is being established owing to new constitutional norms, such an enabling is in the process of happening. India, therefore, perforce becomes a beacon for other class-divided, diverse nations where democracy has failed to develop because of the sheer diversity and division that persists and which is utilised by the elites to retain power or foment turmoil.

Yet, the failure of the presence of substantial democratic institutions to arrest the weak trends of economic development, i.e., the presence of poverty, vast gaps in economic indicators between different sections of society does not mean that these institutions are to be discarded. It means that these institutions have to be further strengthened and transformed as vehicles of carrying out substantial economic and equitable development.

In other countries of South Asia, therefore, a strong agency must be present that privileges the use of democratic norms for functioning and that counters the ideology of the elites and those in autocratic positions. These norms should be universal and progressive and must privilege enduring justice over temporary political gain. Can we see such an agency developing in countries affected by serious turmoil?

In Sri Lanka, the ethnic violence is sustained because of lack of appeal to universal human rights and due to the recourse to narrow sectarian ends. An agency that privileges universal norms for all Sri Lankans, which means providing autonomous and federal rights to minorities and, which is directed at preserving the integrity of the nation needs to be encouraged and developed. In Myanmar, democratic groups have been suppressed because of non-committal support to these sections by regional powers — India and China — that see economic relations with the junta as more profitable rather than engaging with the democratic struggles. In Nepal, the hurdles are minor, as the stakeholders have realised the necessity to raise questions of universal human values is very important to keep away feudal autocracy, and the room for hope still remains. In Pakistan, it is the duty of civil society to pressurise the political class to avoid quests for narrow political gain and to unite for the establishment of a democratic order committed to progressive values. In essence, there is hope for South Asia provided there emerges a progressive agency. It is the duty of the people to provide this agency in the days to come to get out of the constant turmoil.

The writer, trained in engineering and in political science, works with the editorial team at Economic and Political Weekly, and is an avid follower of sports, political economy and the performing arts.

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