Is South Asian democracy in retreat?

By Lok Raj Baral ,The Kathmandu Post/Asia News Network

The democratic project confronts myriad challenges in South Asia. The concept itself is being revisited to learn more aggressive interventions and re-emphasis nuance and practice. Some countries �X like India and Sri Lanka, both with British colonial backgrounds �X 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 �X like Pakistan and Bangladesh, carved out of first India and then Pakistan (Bangladesh) �X 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 of 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.