Analysis: Polls, Democracy And Degradation In South Asia

Analysis: Polls, Democracy And Degradation In South Asia

The condescending manner of analysts towards flawed democracies in the world’s largest democracy — India — and the oldest and most powerful democracy — America — may no longer be justifiable

K C SinghUpdated: Saturday, February 10, 2024, 04:15 AM IST
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Former prime minister Imran Khan’s stand-off against the army began over his differences with the former army chief | Twitter Image

National elections in three important Indian neighbours have preceded the Indian Lok Sabha election. In the US too, as the November presidential poll approaches, multiple lessons emerge on what constitutes electoral debasement. The condescending manner of analysts towards flawed democracies in the world’s largest democracy — India — and the oldest and most powerful democracy — America — may no longer be justifiable.

Take the ongoing legal challenges confronting former US president Donald Trump, the Republican party’s likely nominee in next election. The US Supreme Court is examining the legality of Colorado’s disqualification of Trump on insurrection charges about inciting mobs which overran the Capitol Hill complex in Washington in January 2021. Trump already faces sexual harassment and business malpractice charges. The extreme polarisation of US political opinion demonstrates that even established democracies can face democratic recession when people succumb to the rabble rousing of a populist leader exploiting public paranoia.

Allegations regarding the compromised integrity of Bangladesh’s parliament election arose when the principal opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by former prime minister Khaleda Zia and allies, boycotted the polls. They alleged that the incumbent prime minister Sheikh Hasina had refused to transfer power to an independent interim government for conducting free and fair polls. While the US was critical of Sheikh Hasina degrading democracy, India was content to ignore moral issues. PM Hasina is India’s ally who handles Islamist forces and terrorism firmly. Bangladesh provided an example of the gradual degradation of a nation’s polity until it remains just an electoral democracy, amidst increasingly non-liberal conditions. Even in the European Union such regression is visible in countries like Hungary.

The presidential election in Maldives in September 2023 presents a different scenario. Mohamed Muizzu, mayor of Male and leader of People’s National Congress defeated India-friendly incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. The challenger campaigned on the “India Out” slogan, fanning paranoia in the Muslim majority nation. After assuming office on November 17, 2023, Muizzu quickly diverted Maldives towards China and away from India. Amongst his initial decisions was the order asking India to withdraw its defence personnel, managing the India-gifted flying platforms. The election demonstrated that pro-India, secular political elements in Muslim nations in South Asia can fall victim to a popular upsurge fanned by Islamist propaganda about Indian threat to their identity. China naturally steps happily into the gap. BJP’s majoritarian orientation in India, with focus on temple-mosque controversies, demand for Uniform Civil Code and amendments to citizenship rules, naturally debilitates Indian ability to counter right-wing Islamist parties in its South Asian neighbourhood, challenging Indian allies.

A third variation of the above two democratic examples is the parliament election in Pakistan on February 8. The New York Times, reporting from Lahore, observed that for the first time there was street-level resentment against the Pakistani military. In the past military dictators may have lost public support after extended rule but the army as an institution has mostly retained their popularity and image as defenders of the state. Former prime minister Imran Khan’s stand-off against the army began over his differences with former army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa (2016-22). However Imran Khan’s conflict with Pakistan’s current army chief General Asim Munir dates from the time when as prime minister he had him replaced as Director General Inter-Services Intelligence in 2019. In November 2023 General Munir assumed charge as army chief. Blatant persecution and detention of Imran Khan, employing criminal cases based on hyped charges, has polarised Pakistan as Imran Khan retains popular support as a former cricket icon and populist politician mixing religion and nationalism. Extreme harassment of members of his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), followed. The courts robbed the party of its election symbol, a cricket bat, forcing them to contest as independents.

Pakistan’s army was seen as manipulating the electoral and legal processes to catapult their old nemesis but new favourite, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, into power. Thus it has been a case of Imran Khan versus the rest, including the powerful army, Pakistan’s traditional political puppeteer. The vote counting was dragged on inexplicably with mounting allegations of electoral manipulation. Despite these machinations, in the 326 member Pakistan National Assembly candidates of Imran Khan’s PTI led in 154 constituencies compared to PML(Nawaz) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) ahead in 47 seats each. Some more results will emerge gradually.

Pakistan’s deep state may still undo the public’s mandate favouring Imran Khan’s scattered political army by hijacking independents to support their favoured candidate. But the courage shown by the electorate shows that even flawed democracies can surprise with their resurgence. However, the conclusion is inescapable that liberal democracies are threatened across the world today. If Trump wins and BJP returns with a mandate large enough to amend the Constitution, the democratic decline in the two major nations could be steeper. The fate of the democratic liberal model today hangs by a thread.

KC Singh is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

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