| Political Parties in South Asia: The challenge of change
by K C Suri, et al
International IDEA, 2007
Despite the hype over the US-led ‘war on terror’, overwhelming global concern continues to be centred on poverty. The persistence of poverty in large parts of the world has created the conditions for the rise of various forms of extremism, while attempts by development agencies to fight poverty have proven sluggish, and the gains uneven. At least for many non-American donors, the realisation has finally begun to dawn that a form of governance that ensures dignity and security for all is necessary for the alleviation of poverty. Consequently, ‘participatory governance’ is the new mantra of the diplomatic community.
Democracy gives a government popular legitimacy, in that it symbolises the consent of the governed. Democratic governments claim to represent the people, and rule in their name. Weak democracies can foster fissiparous tendencies, as populist and chauvinistic politicians fan the fear of the inimical ‘other’ to consolidate their own hold over the masses. It has been argued that the historical Greek democracies disintegrated largely due to lack of discipline.
Scientific explorations of causes, effects and possible remedies of democratic process are now needed, as are comprehensive studies of political parties, commensurate with their role and relevance in governance. After all, strengthening of political parties cannot be accomplished without first understanding their dynamics, and such a comparative analysis has been particularly lacking in the Southasian context. The Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) has now attempted to fill that need by sponsoring the study and publication of a book dedicated to the functioning of political parties in the region. Irrespective of the quality of its contents, such a publication is an achievement in itself.
Based on research on and dialogue with political parties in the region, Political Parties in South Asia: The challenge of change follows the standard format favoured by international consultants. Had the book come ring-bound, it would probably have failed to stand out among the deluge of reports that flow from organisations similar to IDEA. That would have been a pity. Even though this publication is data-heavy and insight-deficient, it succeeds in laying important groundwork for more substantive debates regarding the capacity-building of Southasian political parties.
In studying the political parties of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the authors discover three ways in which these entities came into being. The first and foremost is as the legatees of independence movements, such as the Awami League in Bangladesh, Congress (I) in India and the Nepali Congress in Nepal, though the latter fought for ‘independence’ from the Ranas. These parties continue to fight electoral battles in the names of their founders.
Second, ideology-based parties create or exploit fissures between different population groups. Based on class, community, caste or religion, a group identity is created to be pitted against an external group that supposedly threatens ‘us’. Class solidarity helped in the entrenchment of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal. Religious sentiment created the necessary conditions for the Muslim League to create Pakistan from British India. Caste calculations produced populist leaders such as Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar, Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh and the anti-Brahmin platform in Tamil Nadu.
The evolution of a third type of political outfit is the most interesting phenomenon. When ambitious political entrepreneurs find that existing organisations are too crowded for them to reach the forefront, they divide the parent party and create their own vehicle. Such manoeuvring begins with moralistic rhetoric, and ends in hard-headed bargaining for power and pelf. Indira Gandhi dumped her party’s candidate for a personal favourite in the presidential elections of 1969, and portrayed herself as above the institution. Charan Singh wrecked the Janata Party experiment for what turned out to be a very temporary premiership. Sher Bahadur Deuba facilitated the creeping authoritarianism of King Gyanendra for the same reason by splitting from Girija Prasad Koirala’s party. Nepal’s Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka ‘Prachanda’) embarked on his armed adventure by erecting a political outfit from the debris of the party known as Unity Centre. It is easy to discern parties built by political entrepreneurs: they prefer the royal ‘we’ over the humble ‘I’ of simpler activists.
The pathology of democracy in general and political parties in particular arises from the peculiar ‘saviour syndrome’ common to most developing societies. Often, an ambitious man on horseback will decide that he can be a better saviour than a civilian claimant, and proceeds to capture state power. Since politicians are assumed guilty till proven innocent, it is relatively easy for military usurpers to sell the ethical cleansing of public life.
There is a certain pattern in the pathologies of political parties. Decadence is common to parties that grow out of independence movements. Dynastic succession can evolve anywhere, but legatees of imperial traditions are more at risk. Demagoguery comes naturally to the ‘us versus them’ parties, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Despotism is endemic to parties founded by political entrepreneurs such as Prabhakaran and Pushpa Kamal Dahal. These are also the outfits that degenerate into politics of desperation and annihilation.
Despite its critical tone, Political Parties in South Asia gives a strange sense of satisfaction to the reader. Southasians seem to be one in censuring their political parties, but flock to the same institutions when kings and dictators make their periodic appearances as saviours. Political parties have to be strengthened to reduce conflict, improve governance and create conditions for sustainable peace. The book also provides opportunity for a discussion of participatory governance, that concept most dear to the international community.
Participatory governance has at least three dimensions. Its base consists of democracy, wherein instruments of free, fair and periodic elections, a multiplicity of political parties, voters’ education, electoral campaigns and coalition-building are some of the indispensable elements. Second, effective governance requires that certain broadly-shared values be made inviolable. The consent of the governed is conditional upon the government adhering to universal principles of governance, incorporating the republican dimension of democracy (rule of law, separation of powers, etcetera). However, when rule of law ossifies in the absence of periodic democratic renewal, republics turn into empires and begin their collapse.
The third dimension that gives depth to democracy consists of identity and dignity. Human rights, individual liberty, multiplicity of identities and diversity of cultures are some important concerns of democratic governance. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though violated too often to remain sanguine about its own sanctity, has nonetheless become universally accepted. The inviolability of human rights is now more important than national sovereignty.
If one were to compare academic studies on the dimensions of participatory governance, republic-anism would likely emerge on top, with tomes devoted to it from the time of Plato and Kautilya onwards. Even though identity politics is a relatively new area of intellectual exploration, the collapse of the Soviet Union inspired hectic academic exercises in this field. In comparison, the functioning of democracy remains the obsession only of the media. That may be because republicanism is a political science, identity an art, and democracy a politics that falls somewhere in between. Nonetheless, democracy remains the very base of society, and deserves more attention than it has thus far received.
In line with the obsession of donor agencies with gender politics, a whole chapter in Political Parties in South Asia is devoted to the study of women’s participation in the Southasian political sphere. But it is comparatively weak in the exploration of exclusion (of Dalits, for example) and marginalisation – two issues that will test the mettle of all of the region’s political parties in the days to come.
In suggesting remedial measures for political parties, IDEA’s researchers rely on conventional wisdom: leadership, electoral reforms and party finances. Even though elsewhere in the book the authors lament the “discourse of liberalization in between elections and the discourse of welfare during elections”, the reinvention of an ideological glue to keep a party relevant is left untouched. Perhaps it is not easy to train leaders, reform electoral practices or ensure transparent party financing in isolation. These probably have to be a part of the empowerment package that seeks to involve political parties – not just in a democratic exercise, but also on the axes of republicanism and identity. Political parties of the future will have to be ‘change managers’ in every sphere, rather than limiting themselves to being electoral machines.
Political Parties in South Asia is a technocratic work, and suffers from expert bias. There is a strong advocacy of party-neutral election-time governments, patterned after Bangladesh. It is debatable whether this experiment has been successful in that country, however, or whether it is replicable elsewhere in Southasia. The authors’ collaborators from Nepal, meanwhile, are not well known for their democratic or party-building credentials.
With a lot of history but no memories; tonnes of data but no stories; and a series of tables but no images, it seems that a conscious effort has been made to keep this book dry enough to look acceptably academic. For this reason, even though politicians need to read Political Parties in South Asia, they may not have the patience to plough through it. The volume is, however, attractive enough for display on the bookshelves of those politicians who love to cultivate an intellectual image.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.