India’s near-abroad: Democracy in retreat

Brahma Chellaney

Mohamed Nasheed who was ousted at gunpoint as president of the Maldives

From the virtual coup d’état that deposed Maldives’ first democratically elected president to the undermining of an elected but toothless government in Pakistan by its Supreme Court, South Asia is witnessing a backsliding on democratic advances, just as the democratic awakening triggered by the “Arab Spring” movements has brought not democratic empowerment but more human-rights abuses in much of the Arab world.

The recent abortive coup attempt in Bangladesh has served as a warning that the world’s seventh most-populous country — while struggling to remain a democracy — is vulnerable to renewed army intervention. In its four-decade-long history, Bangladesh has experienced 23 coup attempts — some successful.

The forced resignation at gunpoint of its president, Mohamed Nasheed, a week ago has made the Maldives the third country in the region after Nepal and Sri Lanka where a democratic transition has gone wrong. The Maldives now seems in for prolonged instability.

A fourth country, Pakistan, has yet to begin a genuine democratic transition because the army chief remains its effective ruler. How can democratization begin if Pakistan’s army and Inter-Services Intelligence stay outside civilian oversight and decisive power remains with military generals?

To make matters worse, Pakistan’s Supreme Court seems to be playing the army’s game in moving to ease the prime minister out of office. A constitutional coup, instead of a military coup, will be a win-win situation for the army and ISI, allowing them to rule from behind the curtain through a more-pliable government, on which all the blame can be pinned for the violence and economic mess.

Sri Lanka’s human-rights situation under President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s quasi-dictatorship continues to evoke international concern. Reversing the militarization of society, ending the control of information as an instrument of state policy, and promoting political and ethnic reconciliation remain daunting tasks in Sri Lanka.

The end of the 26-year civil war actually has emboldened Rajapaksa to step up attempts to fashion a mono-ethnic identity for a multiethnic Sri Lanka. This has important strategic implications for India in terms of the plight of Tamil civilians, refugee flows, and the potential for renewed civil strife.

In Nepal — a strategic buffer between India and restive Tibet, where China says it is launching a “war against secessionist sabotage” — the political disarray persists, with parties continuing to bicker over a new constitution. Nepal remains in danger of becoming a failed state, a development that will have major implications for India’s security.

More broadly, the political developments in the region underscore that regular elections, as in Pakistan or Sri Lanka, are no measure of progress on democratic transition. Genuine democratic empowerment at the grassroots demands more than the holding of elections.

The backsliding on democratization leaves India as the sole country in the region with a deeply rooted democracy and pluralism. But it also seriously weakens India’s interests.

India’s neighbourhood remains so chronically troubled that it confronts what can be called a tyranny of geography. As a result, India faces serious external threats from virtually all directions.

To some extent, this tyranny of a combustible neighbourhood is self-inflicted. If India faces security concerns over Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or even Pakistan, it is because of failures of past policy. And the rollback of democracy in South Asia only exposes India’s lack of clout to influence political developments in its backyard.

Today, the political chaos and uncertainty in the neighbourhood heighten the danger of spillover effects for India. It is no accident that India’s internal security is coming under growing pressure. An increasingly unstable neighbourhood also makes it more difficult to promote institutionized cooperation and integration in the region, including free trade.

Institutions are products — not drivers — of the political environment. In any continent, institutions have flourished only if there is political and economic compatibility between their member-states. When member-states have conflicting political and economic systems, the institutions have stunted. Divergent political systems are a major reason why Asia has failed to build real institutions. In South Asia, the underdeveloped SAARC, as a retarded institution, is more a hindrance than a help to regional cooperation. If all South Asian states became real democracies, the present barriers to open trade would erode.

More fundamentally, the rise of Islamist groups in several South Asian countries poses a direct challenge to Indian security. In 2001, the Taliban destroyed the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. And on the day Nasheed was ousted, Islamists ransacked Maldives’ main museum in Male, the capital, and smashed priceless Buddhist statues. By destroying the 12th-century artefacts made of coral stone and limestone, they erased virtually all evidence of Maldives’ pre-Islamic past.

Encouraged by opposition politicians, Islamist groups in the Maldives are “getting more powerful,” according to Nasheed. And in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the military intelligence agency has nurtured jihadist groups, employing them for political purposes at home and across the national frontiers.

Regional experience has shown that autocratic rule, due to the absence of public accountability, tends to promote extremist elements, especially when those in power form opportunistic alliances with such forces. For example, Pakistan’s descent into a jihadist dungeon occurred not under civilian rule, but under two military dictators — one who nurtured and let loose jihadist forces, and another who took his country to the very edge of the precipice. Even today, the scourge of Pakistani terrorism emanates more from the country’s Scotch whisky-sipping generals than from the bead-rubbing mullahs.

When a democratic experiment gains traction, as in Bangladesh under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, it crimps the extremist forces’ room for manoeuvre.

A broader lesson that the regional retreat of democracy holds is that democratic progress will remain tenuous and reversible unless the old entrenched forces are cut to size and the rule of law firmly established.

For example, Maldives’ 2008 democratic election, which swept away decades-old authoritarian rule, became a beacon of hope, only to dissipate in less than four years. As Nasheed reminded all after being deposed, “Dictatorships don’t always die when the dictator leaves office … long after the revolutions, powerful networks of regime loyalists can remain behind and can attempt to strangle their nascent democracies.”

In fact, Nasheed has a message for the Arab Spring movements: “The problems we are facing in the Maldives are a warning for other Muslim nations undergoing democratic reform. At times, dealing with the corrupt system of patronage the former regime left behind can feel like wrestling with a Hydra: when you remove one head, two more grow back. With patience and determination, the beast can be slain. But let the Maldives be a lesson for aspiring democrats everywhere: the dictator can be removed in a day, but it can take years to stamp out the lingering remnants of his dictatorship.”

With India’s tyranny of geography only getting worse and putting greater pressure on its external and internal security, India has to evolve more-dynamic and innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defence. For example, if it is to advance its national interest by supporting democracy and pluralism in its neighborhood and beyond, it will need to go beyond government-to-government channels for disbursing its increasingly large aid. Its aid diplomacy must reach out to civil-society groups and other liberal constituencies that can take on retrograde elements. Only through forward thinking and more-vigorous defence and foreign policies can India hope to ameliorate its regional-security situation and play a bigger role on the world stage.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Center for Policy Research, is the author, mostly recently, of Water: Asia’s New Battleground.

A version of this article appeared in The Economic Times, February 14, 2014.