South Asia’s False Spring

Column internationally distributed by Project Syndicate.

From the armed coup that recently ousted the Maldives’ first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, to the Pakistani Supreme Court’s current effort to undermine a toothless but elected government by indicting Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on contempt charges, South Asia’s democratic advances appear to be shifting into reverse.

Nasheed’s forced resignation at gunpoint has made the Maldives the third country in the region, after Nepal and Sri Lanka, where a democratic transition has been derailed. The Maldives, a group of strategically located islands in the Indian Ocean, now seems set for prolonged instability.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has yet to begin a genuine democratic transition, because the chief of army staff remains its effective ruler. How can democratization begin if Pakistan’s army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency are immune to civilian oversight and decisive power rests with military generals?

The Supreme Court’s move against Gilani makes matters worse. A constitutional – rather than a military – coup will be a win-win situation for the army and the ISI, allowing them to rule behind the scenes through a more pliable government, on which all of the blame can be pinned for civil disorder and economic turmoil.

Sri Lanka’s human-rights situation under President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s quasi-dictatorship also continues to evoke international concern. The recent end of the country’s 26-year civil war has left behind a militarized society and an emboldened Rajapaksa, who has curtailed media freedom and stepped up efforts to fashion a mono-ethnic identity for a multiethnic Sri Lanka.

In Nepal — a strategic buffer between India and restive Tibet, where China claims to be at “war against secessionist sabotage” — political disarray persists, with political parties bickering over a new constitution. Nepal is in danger of becoming a failed state, which would have major implications for India, with which it has an open border permitting passport-free passage.

Finally, the recent abortive coup attempt in Bangladesh has shown that the world’s seventh most populous country, struggling to remain a democracy under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, remains vulnerable to its unruly military. In its four decades of independence, Bangladesh has experienced 23 coup attempts, some of them successful.

Political developments in the region underscore the insufficiency of free, fair, and competitive elections for ensuring a democratic transition. Elections, by themselves, do not guarantee genuine democratic empowerment at the grassroots level or adherence to constitutional rules by those in power.

As a result of sputtering transitions elsewhere in South Asia, India is now the sole country in the region with a deeply-rooted pluralistic democracy. That is not in India’s interest, for it confronts the country with what might be called the “tyranny of geography” — that is, serious external threats from virtually all directions.

To some extent, it is a self-inflicted tyranny. India’s security concerns over Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and even Pakistan stem from the failures of its past policies. At the very least, the rollback of democracy in the region exposes India’s inability to influence political developments in its own backyard.

Today, political chaos and uncertainty in the region heighten the danger of spillover effects for India, threatening the country’s internal security. An increasingly unstable neighborhood also makes it more difficult to promote regional cooperation and integration, including free trade.

The rise of Islamist groups that has accompanied anti-democratic developments in South Asia represents a further threat to the region. In vandalism reminiscent of the Taliban’s demolition of the monumental Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan in 2001, Islamists ransacked the Maldives’ main museum in Male, the capital, on the day Nasheed was ousted, smashing priceless Buddhist and Hindu statues made of coral and limestone, virtually erasing all evidence of the Maldives’ Buddhist past before its people converted to Islam in the twelfth century. “The whole pre-Islamic history is gone,” the museum’s director lamented.

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

This follows a well-established pattern in the region: autocratic rule has tended to promote extremist elements, especially when those in power form opportunistic alliances with such forces. For example, Pakistan’s thriving jihadist factions arose under two military dictators: Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who used them to confront the Soviets in Afghanistan, and Pervez Musharraf, who fled to London in 2008 under threat of impeachment and was subsequently charged with involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 — a milestone in Pakistan’s slide into chaos.

When a democratic experiment gains traction, as in Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina, it crimps the extremists’ room for maneuver. But a broader lesson in much of the region is that democratic progress remains reversible unless the old, entrenched forces are ousted and the rule of law is firmly established.

For example, the Maldives’ 2008 democratic election, which swept away decades-old authoritarian rule, became a beacon of hope, which then dissipated in less than four years. As the freshly deposed Nasheed put it, “Dictatorships don’t always die when the dictator leaves office….[L]ong after the revolutions, powerful networks of regime loyalists can remain behind and can attempt to strangle their nascent democracies.”

As its tyranny of geography puts greater pressure on its external and internal security, India will need to develop more innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defense. Only through more vigorous defense and foreign policies can India hope to ameliorate its regional-security situation, freeing it to play a larger global role. Otherwise, it will continue to be weighed down by its region.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut and Water: Asia’s New Battleground.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.

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