Feature Article

State of Democracy in South Asia

Posted: 2007-02-06

What has democracy done for South Asia and what has South Asia done for democracy?

These questions recur in the State of Democracy in South Asia report, launched in New Delhi, India on 4 December 2006. Prepared by the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in collaboration with International IDEA and the Department of Sociology, Oxford University, the report will be published by Oxford University Press in 2008.

Partners and participants at the launch of the State of Democracy in South Asia report, New Delhi, 4 December 2006
Partners and participants at the launch of the State of Democracy in South Asia report, New Delhi, 4 December 2006. Photo: Mr. Bhushan from Prem Studio, Kamla Nagar, Delhi - 110 007

Democracy is a global phenomenon on every one’s lips. Yet defining and measuring democracy remain highly contested. The methodology used to develop this report involved surveys, dialogues with political activists and case studies. The emphasis was on capturing peoples’ ideas and experiences in order to develop an understanding of democracy. In the process, one view became clear: democracy is more than just political freedom and includes the concepts of social justice and equity too.

The report covers five South Asian countries – Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – and comes at a time of critical change in the region. In Nepal, an overwhelming social movement has reigned in an autocratic monarchy and reclaimed the people’s democracy. As Bangladesh moves towards elections, the trust and credibility of its institutions and democratic processes are being challenged. Sri Lanka has yet to resolve a role and status for it minorities and for decades has experienced violent conflict. In Pakistan, the military continues to overshadow politics giving little room for autonomous political development. As India moves towards becoming a global economic power, it is reminded of the need to secure social and economic equity.

Ten key messages emerge from the report:

  1. While there is widespread support for the idea of democracy in South Asia, there is less commitment towards or satisfaction with the institutional form of representative democracy.
  2. While South Asian democracy provides greater room for the struggle towards equality, dignity and human security of all citizens, there is less emphasis on rules and institutions to guard against majoritarian excesses.
  3. Constitutions may well offer equality of political citizenship, but fall well short of delivering the promise of democracy that most people aspire to.
  4. An elaborate set of institutions to provide for formal autonomy appears to exist but in practice they suffer from erosion of real autonomy and low levels of public trust.
  5. While all the countries have mechanisms for recognizing and accommodating regional and social diversity, the mantra of the homogeneous nation-state and growing majoritarian practices undermines the co-existence of diversity and democracy.
  6. Political parties are a firm part of South Asia’s political consciousness and generate a high degree of popular participation and identification. But their inability to function in a democratic and transparent manner or offer meaningful choices to voters has resulted in a low level of trust.
  7. Non-party organizations and social movements have emerged which give voice to the issues and groups ignored by political parties whose role has been eclipsed in certain instances. Yet these organizations also fail to address issues of representation, transparency and accountability.
  8. Ordinary people in South Asia are resilient and, despite their challenging political, economic and social conditions, do not show marked feelings of insecurity. However minorities experience insecurity and the democratic state with its majoritarian overtones can be a source of insecurity to them.
  9. The experiences of South Asia show that democracy can be built in societies that have not attained high rates of economic growth. It also demonstrates that democracies can evade addressing the issues of poverty, destitution and inequality even when the poor constitute a majority.
  10. The cultures, practices and institutions of democracy have transformed the people of South Asia from subjects to citizens and bearers of rights and dignity. This gives rise to expectations that most governments in the region have failed to meet.

Three challenges for democracy in South Asia

The South Asian experience demonstrates that democracy is a quest and a struggle. Democracy faces three sequential challenges in South Asia. It faces a foundational challenge – the minimalist demand of instituting a democratic government that will not be undermined by authoritarian challenges. Indeed several countries of the region have been enamoured by the claims of the army and non democratic forms of government that they will provide effective leadership. At another level it requires ensuring a functioning state in the whole territory. In many countries of the region, the writ of the state does not run to remote areas, the bureaucracy does not function effectively and the state is destabilized by non-state actors. Electoral processes are often undermined which ultimately reduces faith in democracy.

“It is very likely that diverse social and political groups will look at this report and challenge it through the simple questions – Is this how democratic our country and its government are? What does this democracy mean to me? What does it do for me? How can it work better for me? This is surely the objective of such an assessment – to create the beginnings of a new citizen engagement with democracy.”

Sakuntala Kadirgamar- Rajasingham, Head of International IDEA’s Asia programme

Democracy in South Asia also faces the challenge of expansion which calls upon countries to apply the basic principles of democracy to all regions, social groups and sectors. Representation of the poor, women, marginal castes and ethnic communities, protection of minorities, and bringing government to the poor remain problematic.

The third challenge is to deepen democracy and to take it beyond institutional routines and elites. It calls for a rejection of the view that political processes are largely for the elite or technocrats, and calls for the democratization of public policy making, creating social democracy to run alongside political democracy. It calls for a rejection of anti democratic putsches. Finally, it calls for a celebration of diversity within the different societies of South Asia.

Facing the challenges and evolving an agenda

The demographic realities of South Asia are compelling: an increasingly young population in old societies controlled by an ageing leadership; large scale population shifts from rural to urban areas; and the declining importance of land-based occupations as an alignment with the global economy takes place. Social change must go hand in hand with political transformation.

The political practice of South Asia has given rise to a new language of democracy and generated home grown reflections on challenges and failures. Yet there is also a failure of democratic imagination. South Asia needs to develop an alternative approach to thinking about democratic reforms that will respond to the promise of democracy. It needs to prioritize the accommodation of minority interests and aspirations, re-invigorate politics through a radical re-working of political institutions and the state.

Panel discussion during the launch of the State of Democracy in South Asia report, New Delhi, 4 December 2006
Panel discussion during the launch of the State of Democracy in South Asia report, New Delhi, 4 December 2006 Photo: Mr. Bhushan from Prem Studio, Kamla Nagar, Delhi - 110 007

The report is cautiously optimistic due to the indomitable spirit of the people of the region who are actively engaged in working through democracy. This, in the final analysis, will safeguard their democratic future.

International IDEA was privileged to have been associated with the development of this report which was the work of a collective of South Asian scholars, coming from major research institutions and from established communities of practice in the region. It is, as democracy assessments should be: a national endeavour.

See also the article Democracy: Object of Desire  (Himal Southasian, January 2007 edition).

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