Ram Madhav
April 9, 2022

Democracy in South Asia

(The article was originally published by Chintan – India Foundation Blogs on April 9, 2022.Views expressed are personal.)

Interestingly, two leaders have a serious problem with the RSS at the same time. One is Imran Khan, the outgoing Prime Minister of Pakistan. Isolated in the Pakistan National Assembly and faced with a definite ouster through the no-confidence motion moved by the combined opposition, beleaguered Khan complained that he was unable to build strong ties with India because of the “RSS ideology and what happened in Kashmir”. At the Central – South Asia Conference held at Tashkent in July last year too, Khan made similar comments, insisting that “the ideology of RSS” had come in the way of resumption of dialogue between the two countries.

Another leader who finds a similar problem with the RSS is the senior Congress leader in India,Rahul Gandhi. “….. we have to protect our institutions. But all the institutions are in the hands of RSS,” he bemoaned recently at a book launch event in Delhi. He also called upon the “Opposition parties that are against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Narendra Modi” to come together.

It could be a strange coincidence that two leaders on the losing side of the spectrum in two neighbouring countries find fault not with their own politics but the RSS for their ill-fortunes at the same time. What both of them should realise was that it is the democratic systems in the two countries that are coming in the way of their fortunes, not the RSS.

The RSS is an integral and influential part of India’s democratic system. After India became independent, the RSS submitted a written constitution for itself in 1949, even before the country got one for its people. When the Indian democracy was usurped by Rahul’s grand mother, Indira Gandhi in 1975-77 through the infamous Emergency, it was the RSS that stood up as a bulwark against Indira’s dictatorship and worked for restoring democracy.

“The underground campaign against Mrs Gandhi claims to be the only non-left wing revolutionary force in the world, disavowing both bloodshed and class struggle. The ground troops of this operation (the underground movement), consist of tens of thousands of cadres who are organised to the village level into four men cells. Most of them are RSS regulars, though more and more new young recruits are coming in. The other underground parties which started out as partners in the underground have effectively abandoned the field to Jan Sangh and RSS,” wrote The Economist on December 12, 1976.

Rahul’s claim that he was not interested in power reminds one of the ‘sour grapes’ analogy. Power, in any case, is nowhere in sight in near future for him and his party, which is shrinking by every passing election. It is the maturity of Indian democracy that rejects politics of dynasty and entitlement that Rahul proudly flaunted in that function claiming he was born “in centre of power”. In a difficult South Asian neighbourhood, Indian democracy stands out as a beacon of hope and confidence.

Two of India’s neighbours – Pakistan and Sri Lanka – are struggling with their democratic establishments today. In Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan is making a last ditch effort to save himself from a no-confidence motion steered by a united and determined opposition. In Sri Lanka, a massive popular uprising is sweeping across the island nation against its government led by the Rajapaksa family.

Both Imran Khan and Gotabaya Rajapaksa were elected through a popular mandate in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Both had formed coalition governments in their respective countries. Both had the backing of their respective militaries. Today, both face serious democratic challenges to their leadership in their countries.

There is one important difference though. While Sri Lanka ran a largely successful democracy ever since it became independent in 1948, democratic process could never fully take root in Pakistan. Right from the time of its creation in 1947, the country remained a basket case of a failed democracy.

One important factor that helped countries in the region stabilise as democracies is India’s shining example. In their hour of crisis, both Sri Lanka and Pakistan look up to Indian democracy. Leaders on both sides of the establishment in these countries are seen today singing paeans of India’s democratic virtue and seeking its support.

It is India’s example that has motivated other neighbours like Nepal and Bhutan to turn to democracy. After a short-lived stint in 1959, Nepal turned firmly to democracy in the 1990s leaving the monarchic past behind. In Bhutan, the monarchy itself facilitated the establishment of democracy in 2008. The Maldives has also consistently laboured to build a democratic polity since the 1968 referendum. Bangladesh struggled initially with democracy, with military rulers repeatedly interrupting its smooth progress, finally settling down as a functioning democracy from the 1990s onwards.

This democratisation process in South Asia is significant because the other major player in the region, China, which has close ties with many countries in the region, has an entirely different political system. The Chinese aid that flows into the region also comes with its unwholesome political influence.

Sadly, the Western commentators fail to appreciate this regional reality and try to subject countries to undue pressure in the name of democratic deficit. A case in point is the recently held Summit for Democracy, hosted by the State Department of the United States of America in February this year. In our neighbourhood, while Nepal and Maldives received an invitation, Bhutan and Sri Lanka were denied the same. While a wobbling democracy like Pakistan was qualified in the eyes of the US State Department for the summit, a more functional one in Bangladesh was not. Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi addressed this Summit virtually. China, expectedly, not only opposed the summit, but also released a report on the ‘status of US democracy’, calling it “dysfunctional”.

India believes in non-interference in the affairs of other nations. Yet, its benign influence as the world’s largest functional democracy should help its neighbours in finding answers to their present challenges, lest they fall victims to authoritarianism and autocratic regimes once again.

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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