Democratic decay in most countries in South Asia has suddenly made it fashionable once more to say some pretty (politically) incorrect things in public. Things like: maybe things were better in the bad old days of Zia-ul Haq, or Gen Ershad, or the Emergency, or the Panchayat. Three countries: Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal overcame years of dictatorship within a span of a few years in the past decade, and regained democracy. Pakistan´s transition was hastened when Gen Zia-ul Haq went down in a C-130 near Bhawalpur in 1988. In Nepal, economic hardships caused by an Indian economic blockade helped fuel an uprising that forced absolute monarch Birendra to grant free elections and a pluralist constitution in 1990. In Bangladesh, Gen Husam Mohamed Ershad found his days numbered and was swept by a popular surge for freedom in 1990.
Six years later, the stench of democracy in decay hangs in the air in all three countries. Pakistan has gone for three elections since 1989 and is preparing for a fourth. Benazir Bhutto has been ignominiously dismissed, twice, in almost identical fashion by piqued presidents. Each Pakistani government scaled ever-higher heights of corruption, mismanagement and nepotism than previous ones. Benazir was given a second chance, and she blew it.
For its part, Nepal has had only two elections, narrowly having averted a third. Like moths, the Communists got their brief flutter near the light in 1995, making Nepal the world´s first Marxist-Leninist monarchy. Many countries cannot afford bloated and corrupt governments, but Nepalis cannot even afford the elections to vote kleptocrats out of power. So teetering coalitions held together by tendrils of patronage rule precariously on, while the country itself ´ goes to pot.
Bangladesh mastered the art of The Nationwide Shutdown like no other South Asian country. When Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party was prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League brought the country to a halt for weeks on end. The economy ground to a standstill. Sheikh Hasina has now fulfilled her dream of being prime minister, and the economy is getting back on its feet. So, it is Begum Zia´s turn to shut down the country for weeks on end, just you watch.
It is said that the people get the politicians they deserve. But politicians also get the opposition they deserve. It is not difficult to see why democracy is getting a bad press lately. People are saying: “What´s this democracy? You shuffle the cards and you just get the same old crooks.”
It is not surprising, then, that South Asia´s adolescent democracies have been looking to the veterans—India and Sri Lanka—for a bit of guidance. Not much help there. The fact that India has for the first time a Parliament that is dominated by non-Hindi, non-cowbelt and non-upper caste government may be a sign that the machinery, though cranky, still works. But the transparency of democracy has also shown that corruption has eaten into the vitals of the polity.
Despite a decade of war and a steady attrition of its politicians to suicide bombers, Sri Lanka´s democracy is still alive—but it is in intensive care. Not surprisingly, the role model for most Sri Lankan leaders since 1977 has been Lee Kuan Yew. The Singaporean guru is also gathering followers among India´s business elite, and even Communist technocrats. “Maybe Lee is right,” we hear it said in wine and cheese parties in New Delhi´s upscale cocktail circuit. “Maybe we do need less democracy and more discipline.”
A much more persuasive observation is that the most effective governments that have ever ruled countries in the Subcontinent in recent- years have been interim ones—and they were not even elected! Pakistan was ruled by Moeen Quereshi, an ex-World Bank whizkid, who turned the country´s economy around in three months flat. The fact that a subsequent elected government took about the same time to wreck it is another story.
Today, Pakistan´s caretaker government is setting a different kind of example. Interim prime minister Malik Meraj Khalid flies economy class on P1A, waits with everyone else at the carousel in Lahore for his luggage, and walks around town like an ordinary citizen.
The interim government that ruled Nepal after the fall of the Panchayat, a coalition of pro-multiparty-democracy-wallahs, was arguably the most efficient government in Kathmandu for some time. It managed a transition to democratic rule and delivered a constitution at a time when cynics said Nepal would break apart without the king at the helm. In June 1996, Bangladeshis got what they wanted in the form of a caretaker government run by a former chief justice and a group of competent advisers to supervise elections that were efficient, clean and decisive.
Caretaker governments are what all elected governments should be. They should be taking care of people´s wellbeing and looking at human security as a guarantee of their own staying-power. But governments seem to only want to stay in power, whatever the cost. Democratic politics for them is only a means towards that end.
Yes, democracy in South Asia has failed to deliver. But don´t damn democracy, damn the politicians who haven´t yet grasped what it means.