South Asia is seen as an eternal hot spot on the global political and security map. The turmoil in the Middle East with Tunisia and Egypt seeing a surge of popular protests on the streets however has had little impact in South Asia. A survey of the region would reveal that the spread of democracy could be one of the main reasons. While there have been transitions through street side protests in the Sub Continent in the past, Nepal in 2006 and Pakistan in 2007 being the salient examples, today the entire region has democratic governance howsoever imperfect or inadequate it may seem from outside.
Even Myanmar an umbilical extension of the region has joined the parliamentary band wagon as newly elected members were sworn in on 31 January though the main political party, led by Nobel laureate Aung Suu Kyi did not participate in the hustings. Other countries have democracies in various stages thriving or otherwise but the people can at least protest against their rulers on various issues through bandhs and hartals on price rise, electricity power failures and corruption.
Starting from the West, Afghanistan has a new parliament on 26 January. The elections held in September are widely reported to be marred with fraud. But the Independent Election Commission (IEC) has done a fair job of cleaning up the electoral mishappenings and now there is sense that most of the members of parliament are rightfully elected by the people. The Election for the chair of the speakers are on and may take some time before a final decision is arrived at, but the Afghans are sensing the fruits of electoral democracy.
In Pakistan the main political parties, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML N) know too well that any weakening implies a room for maneouvre for the Army with the help of smaller parties. Thus despite some recent efforts by others as the Mohajir Quami Movement and Jamaat of Fazlur Rehman, President Zardari and PML N Chief Nawaz Sharif remained in communication and ensured that the PPP led coalition government in the centre and the PML N led one in Punjab was not toppled by forces making overtures towards the uniform. It was with some confidence that the Prime Minister Mr Gillani said that Pakistan is no Tunisia.
Nepal remains a concern but political parties have finally elected Mr Jhala Nath Khanal as the Prime Minister and he is well set to establish a government with the help of the Maoist party. The Nepali political leadership has once again proved their propensity for last minute decision making which provides hope for reconciliation in the months ahead. Bhutan has an enlightened monarch who is down streaming electoral democracy with elections to municipal councils held in January. The Bangla people are the most vociferous democrats, however the legacy of past animosity between the two main parties, Awami League and BNP many times flows into violence on the streets, yet the mayoral elections held in January were relatively peaceful. The Awami League which has a majority in parliament did not perform so well as the people at the grass roots are not happy with the overall level of governance by the party, but there are valves of release of pent up frustration in a democracy which were obviously lacking in Egypt.
Down south Maldives has seen a democratic transformation just over a year back with long standing President Gayoom toppled in elections by the present President Mohammed Nasheed. Gayoom is back in the country and hopefully will not create more problems to disturb the political order. The local body elections are on and this would down stream democracy over a period.
Sri Lanka has a legacy of electoral democracy, local body elections are planned in March and the ruling party received a jolt when the Election Commission disqualified some of its candidates on minor technical grounds. Across the board, the role of independent election commissions is perhaps the most important most recently seen in Afghanistan. Indeed the Pakistan Election Commission was in India this month to gain from their experiences and also share some electronic voting machines. Election Commission in Bangladesh has been lauded for smooth conduct of municipal elections, no mean achievement given the nature of politics in the country.
India remains the greatest hope for democracy not just in the region but the entire World, the very survival of this large, disparate, multi ethnic, multi religious and multi lingual country is based on electoral democracy howsoever poor impact that may have on the administration or what ever we may have against its leadership Indians are lucky to be past the stage of the Mubaraks. India will thus continue to provide the lead for South Asia to remain a democracy.
But South Asia’s problems are of governance, security and economy which need a push, there is a great black hole here as is evident even to someone who may be even mildly aware of the region. Turning the strength derived from democracy into benefits for governance would convert the region into a global powerhouse, to convert this dream into reality however may be some way off.