Redeeming democratic South Asia: A tall order?

South Asia is the home of nearly two billion people and is of extraordinary ethnic, religious, linguistic, and cultural diversity. Like their many heterogeneities, South Asian democracies also offer a mixed picture. Countries such as India and Sri Lanka are categorized as “flawed democracies,” according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest 2022 Democracy Index report. This procedural form of democracy generally holds regular, free, and fair elections but often falls short on the rule of law and civil and political liberties. Other countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan, and Nepal have all been grouped under “hybrid regimes,” where civil and political liberties are restricted, political processes are skewed, and the rule of law is weak.

Some of the South Asian countries, for instance Bangladesh and the Maldives, even lack the most basic condition of democracy, which is to hold free and fair elections. Bangladesh has effectively slid into autocracy since 2014, when the regime forcibly “won” the majority of electoral seats uncontested and then held rigged elections in 2018, where it grabbed more than 95 percent of parliamentary seats.

In recent years, we have witnessed a further erosion of democracy in the region. Several factors have contributed to this downward trend, including abusive identity politics; populism; and regressive religious institutions and practices. These factors are often intersectional. For example, Indian radical religious institutions such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Shiv Shena openly advocate and advance the idea of remaking the Indian nation along Hindutva identity, which arguably provided the impetus for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) rise to power. Sri Lanka’s recently ousted Rajapakse regime had adroitly exploited ethno-religious tensions in the country to advance their political agenda and thereby win elections. Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina regime has abused the ideal of secular politics to brutally suppress political opposition, undermine democratic institutions, and consolidate her authoritarian grip on power.

While regimes have used various tools to achieve their political goals, the least common denominators are the same: taking authority for granted, not as conferred, and blatant disregard for democratic values and principles. The consequences of this tyrannical behavior also bear similar hallmarks: crony capitalism leading to big-ticket corruption, weakened democratic institutions and the rule of law, growing intolerance in society, neglected civil and political rights, and rampant human rights violations.

The poor state of South Asian democracies and their relative rankings on free media and civil and political rights are effectively captured by global indices as well. According to the 2022 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, nearly every South Asian country is ranked relatively poorly: out of 180 countries, none of them were listed in the top 50, and only Bhutan (65th) and the Maldives (87th) made it to the list of 100. India (142nd), Pakistan (157th), Bangladesh (152nd), Nepal (106th), and Sri Lanka (146th) all performed poorly. Similarly, in Freedom House’s latest 2022 Global Freedom Index, all South Asian countries are strikingly categorized as “Partly Free” in terms of their political freedom and civil liberties.

Despite these shortcomings and challenges, civil society groups and pro-democracy movements are actively pushing the boundaries for political reforms and promoting democratic values. However, more needs to be done to redeem any hope for a more democratic South Asia. Besides, democracy is not only a political system, but also a culture that must be embedded in society. Given democracy’s dynamic nature and multifaceted challenges, as elsewhere, South Asian societies must prioritize their fight. In the near term, the focus may be on strengthening the rule of law and independent judiciary, promoting more transparency and accountability in the government, and protecting freedom of the press and civil and political liberties. In the medium term, expanding civic education and political participation, working on political inclusion and representation of marginalized groups, and building strong, independent, and impersonal institutions can be viable approaches.

However, in order to sustain any short- and medium-term gains on democratic consolidation, what is needed in the long term, is to build a strong, resilient culture of democracy. This may require interventions at the family, society, and education levels to embed democratic norms and a culture that adheres to democratic values. In extraordinarily hierarchical, patriarchal societies across the region, this is certainly a tall order, but paths can be carved if one knows the destination.

ABOUT AUTHOR: Sultan Mohammed Zakaria is an Associate Editor at the South Asia Perspectives. He is an advisor to the Institute for Regional and International Studies (IRIS), University of Wisconsin-Madison. Twitter: @smzakaria, email:
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