Thursday, 28 June 2007

A tale of three democracies in South Asia

Ahmadul Ameen
During the current tumultuous and difficult phase of democratic evolution of the country, it is quite natural for the citizens to do some soul searching as to why democracy came to such a pass in the country. To compare is a universal human trait.

Hence, it is natural to compare our democratic development with those of other nascent or established democracies, particularly those undergoing a similar evolutionary cycle. Obviously, the first comparison should be made with our immediate neighbour, i.e. India, with whom we have shared history and political development. Both the countries have good secular constitutions, to start with. Pakistan's democratic evolution, that was in tandem with that of Bangladesh till 1970, however, is murkier, and lags behind those of Bangladesh and India.

In the context of the same discussions, the personalities of the important political players need to be considered, of necessity, to assess how they affected the shaping of political evolution in their respective countries.
Elections have been held in India at regular intervals since independence in 1947, and governments have been changed at critical junctures. In the case of India, holding fair elections is more laudable, simply for the fact that the country is not homogeneous in respect of ethnicity, religion and language. By any standard, it is a difficult country to govern, having a multitude of national, regional and communal political parties. Commendably though, the change in political leadership has been smooth during transitions. By and large, the quality of political leaders in the higher echelons is very good, despite the fact that crooks and goons are in abundance in the rank and file. The judiciary is above the political fray, and defence is never seen to be interfering in political affairs.

The judiciary is respected and feared, despite its slow dispensation of justice. Indira Gandhi's removal from power for a trivial (by our standard) indiscretion was a landmark of judicial probity. Another prime minister, Narasimha Rao, was prosecuted, but avoided jail on health grounds, and Sarin is in jail now. The great Lalu Prasad Jadav of Bihar was running the state from jail, through his surrogate Rabri Devi. His comeback is also equally remarkable. Interestingly, his commendable turning around of the Indian Railway is being studied at the famed Harvard School of Business.

Mahatma Gandhi did not seek power after independence, despite being the undisputed leader of the nation. Rather, he went (or threatened to) on hunger strike on a matter of principle, because of non-payment of money due to Pakistan. Nehru could have become an authoritarian dictator if he had wanted to, but chose the path of democracy. Even after the war with China, he advocated the inclusion of China, a pariah state at that time, into the United Nations just because it was the right thing to do.

Maulana Azad did not hanker for power. The common characteristics of these pre-independence leaders were their patriotism, commitment to democracy, and principled exercise of power. Indira Gandhi had the propensity to be authoritarian, but generally played by the rules. Her political comeback also speaks of the robust political process in India. Atal Bihari Bajpai, giving up power without hesitation when faced with a no-confidence vote, also set a fine tradition. Despite the many political crooks, bigots and radicals, there emerged a good number of clean, pragmatic and committed leaders in post-independent India. Highly educated, committed, and respected politicians like Manmohan Singh, Chidambaram, Jyoti Basu etc., to name a few, can stand tall in any milieu/forum.

Focusing on the bordering state of West Bengal, Comrade Buddhadev Bhattacharya is a living legend because of his spartan lifestyle and popularity with the capitalists, who are making a beeline for investing in West Bengal.
Despite the impressive economical and financial development, socio-political development lags behind badly in Pakistan. The slow social progress is attributed to the feudalistic nature of the society, particularly in Punjab and Sind. The landed elite have their tentacles in every sphere of life in Pakistan. Besides dominating agriculture, defence and bureaucracy, they have also monopolised business and industry. Since independence in 1947, except for brief periods, the military has ruled the country directly or through surrogates. The rules of Suhrawardy and Mohammad Ali were transitory at best. Ayub's democracy came in the garb of "basic democracy." Similarly, Musharraf is trying to colour his democracy in a different shade. Democracy could not flourish in Pakistan because of the dominance of the military.

The relatively brief interlude provided by the elected governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif was unsuccessful due to their ineptitude and all-pervasive corruption. Sharif who, despite having two-third majority, squandered a golden opportunity to return the country to a viable democracy. The same was true for Benazir, who also could not deliver the fruits of democracy to the common people of Pakistan. Hardly any leader, having the stature of the pre-independence political leaders like Jinnah, Liaqat Ali, Gaffar Khan etc., emerged in Pakistan. Both Bhutto and Benazir had the potential to be good political leaders. Both of them were well educated and charismatic, but their lack of principles and scruples undid them. Sharif also suffered from similar weaknesses, and was disgracefully thrown out of power. Had there been continuous democratic governments, a group of good leaders might have emerged.
Bangladesh achieved its freedom in 1971 through blood and tears. In Sheikh Mujib Bangladesh had an exceptionally courageous and patriotic leader, who was instrumental in the birth of the nation. Unfortunately, his administrative ability fell short of his virtues. The creation of the controversial Baksal did not endear him universally. Many think that the country's history would have been different if Sheikh Mujib had played the role of "Bangladesh Gandhi," and let Tajuddin, who proved to be a fine and dedicated administrator, run the country along with his comrades.

The emergence of Gen. Zia on the political scene had a calming effect but, unfortunately, it did not last long. His personal honesty, austerity and dedication are sorely missed in today's politics.
I remember many of my Pakistani acquaintances mentioning in the eighties: "your Zia is many times better than our Zia." Tragically, both the great leaders of Bangladesh -- Shekh Mujibur Rahman and General Ziaur Rahman -- were assassinated.

Thereafter, the country was run by the dictatorial regime of General Ershad, who was convicted and jailed for corruption, but has made a political comeback since.
In Bangladesh, proper democratic process began in 1991. Since then, the governments have been changed twice through elections. The elections were generally perceived to be free and fair, which itself is an achievement.

In 1991, BNP won the election fairly, but Awami League did not accept the defeat gracefully. They doggedly carried out hartals and strikes at regular intervals throughout the five-year reign of BNP. In 1996, BNP engineered a sham election that did not work. In 1996, Awami League came back to power, but was removed by the BNP in 2001. The first BNP government governed the country reasonably well, compared to the next two governments. The misrule and corruption, particularly in the last ten years, have been monumental and heart-breaking. Other than the two leaders of the liberation period, no single leader of the stature of Fazlul Haq, Suhrawardy or Bhashani emerged. Instead, a pack of unscrupulous and greedy felons hijacked the so-called democracy. The sordid stories of their misdeeds that are unravelling every day beat any soap opera.

Now that a historic (if not divine) intervention is in process, there are indications that a seismic change is brewing in the political landscape. If the politicians realise and internalize that the old rules of the game have changed for ever, and that there ought to be "give and take" politics -- the long suffering people can look forward to better days. The dynastic politics should be a distant memory. The nation should discard the Bhutto/Benazir, Khaleda/Tareque models in favour of better example of Sonia/Rahul.

Ahmadul Ameen is a freelance contributor to the Daily Star.
(Source: The Daily Star, June 28, 2007)

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