By Khaled Ahmed
September 20, 2014
Are democracies collapsing in Asia? Out of the four that wilted recently, three are Muslim majority. Thailand went under when the Thai army, inured to the job, took over. Bangladesh, after holding elections in January this year, is trying to digest a three-fourths parliamentary majority of the winning party in a famously polarised electorate. Afghanistan too held its unique election this year. After rumours of rigging, its two front-running politicians fell apart. Was the polling free of Afghanistan’s notorious ethnic north-south divide? Most observers thought it was. In the second-round run-off in August, it emerged that it was not.
In Pakistan, allegations of rigging after the May 2013 polls were muffled. But a year later, they rose to a crescendo in the middle of an ill-concealed recrudescence of the state’s old disease: a bad civil-military equation. The media was polarised this time, not the political parties, but with the same effect. Regional contagion was proved when contestants referred to the “Bangladesh option”, which means the army takes over.
Thailand’s political party in government under Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was a regular winner in elections no one called fake. However, violent street agitation brought her government down. Disturbance was allowed long enough, with accompanying economic damage to a national economy second only to Indonesia’s in the region, before the army stepped in and reflexively announced a period of “caretaker” governance.
Bangladesh is hounded by violence emanating from its political bisection between two charismatic women, secular Sheikh Hasina Wajed and rightwing Khaleda Zia, one the daughter of the founder of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the other the wife of a general named Zia ur Rahman who took over soon after martial law was declared. Bangladesh is subject to extreme passions, which the South Asian man is a martyr to. One half of the country hates Pakistan, which is normal, according to the narrative of its genesis: a difficult birth made tougher by Pakistan. The other half hates India because of its “upper riparian meanness”. The January election was boycotted and there was violence in response to Hasina’s hanging of a Jamaat-e-Islami leader in December.
In a way, India is in the works in all botched South Asian elections. Bangladesh swishes right and left between India and Pakistan and Hasina is hardly loved in Pakistan for killing a Jamaat leader. The country has become considerably radical Islamic, which Hasina should have realised; her worry-beads should have told her. India is “involved” once again if you consider that Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad got on the wrong side of the GHQ because of his new India policy and then got snagged in the “Dharna” politics he can’t crush under an edict of restraint from you know who.
And in Afghanistan, the election is in trouble because the next Indo-Pakistan proxy war is going to be fought there after the US-Nato withdrawal later this year. The north-south polarisation of Afghanistan has been worsened by a swing of more than a million votes away from the half-Tajik, half-Pakhtun Abdullah Abdullah to his Pakhtun rival Ashraf Ghani in the second-round run-off. The election suddenly went ethnic, the apologists say. Is democracy in trouble? Bangladesh came into being through a revolt because democracy had been bent out of shape by Pakistani generals. But how can you explain the rise of the generals in Bangladesh? They proved more lethal because the political parties they spawned proved more durable. Ironically, a jihadi Pakistan has turned to a democratic consensus with unrealistic vengeance.
People want democracy, and its two-party political culture is determined to hold on to it, despite a strong GHQ understandably beefy because of the war against terror and the national narrative against India. Pakistanis openly admire India for holding on to democracy: columnists refer enviously to the civilised way the Indian politicians accept election results after losing. Democracy may be losing out in the way it is being defined these days. There was a time when the world, reeling under periods of utopian despotism, accepted it as remedial dystopia. We all grew up in South Asia saying it is not perfect, but it is the best thing to have. If it goes wrong, have more of it, we said. Democracy went uncontested when presented as a leftwing package of “equality” as mentioned in our constitutions. Then economics walked in and wrecked the landscape of low growth and red tape. Everybody embraced capitalism and “poverty alleviation” became the new slogan. But Muslims of the world changed after nationalist dictatorships collapsed in the Middle East. Instead of advancing to dystopian democracy, Muslims mixed it with the “equality” enjoined by religion, based on a city-state “direct-rule” utopia.
Capitalism, predicated on “inequality”, spoiled the debate even more. High growth alleviates poverty but gives us its rich-poor gap. When you are poor, you are OK; after becoming middle class, you agitate for equality. You talk of Sweden, as Imran Khan does, without looking into what “social security” has done to northern European economies. (Yet, Thomas Piketty challenges Francis Fukuyama, who “ended history”, by positing liberal-“capitalist” democracy as the final paradigm.) The other uncomfortable fact is the existence of states in the West where capitalism is supposed to have trounced the Marxist dream.
High growth in South Asia doesn’t result in the state becoming like your mother: “Maa Kay Jaisi”. It can’t subsidise; it can’t afford deficits that spread inflation and kill the rupee. Under dictatorship, there is no news about corruption. The attack on democracy comes from two directions: from those who are fed up with corruption and those who want utopia. You get into more trouble if you have democracy, but it is not secular-liberal. The modern state tries to be liberal by not insisting on goodness; it punishes only badness. There is no coercion to be good as long you are not bad. Articles 62 and 63 in the constitution of Pakistan want you to be good. Goodness is defined on the basis of religious rituals. In the Khyber tribal agency, a warlord called Mangal Bagh coerces you into being good by burning your house if you don’t say Namaaz five times a day in a mosque. This is the “Amr” (enforce good) of Islamic law. The other tenet, called “Nahi” (forbid bad), is democratic and modern, but becomes discriminatory when the law of evidence is applied to women and non-Muslims. Pakistan has both “Amr” and “Nahi”. It can’t protest much about the democracy it can’t have. It is often said democracy has its variations.
Some variations simply don’t let it work. Absent its modern essentials, democracy tends to wobble. Capitalism bothers people because it is based on “inequality”. Leftwing ideologues want to tax the rich and subsidise the poor, which often doesn’t work. Afghanistan and Pakistan will have more trouble with religion. Watch Iraq after Saddam Hussein. Pakistan has internalised it; Kabul too will follow suit after democracy settles down there. In Pakistan, challengers Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri say what Pakistan has is not democracy. Both actually attack the economy. What they promise is utopia. Democracy is in trouble in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan in varying degrees, threatening Bangladesh with dysfunction like the other two. All three happen to be Muslim states. The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’