When things deteriorate very rapidly in any country, there is a tendency – and a temptation – to discuss the situation more in terms of lead personalities, particularly if these happen to be as colourful as Imran Khan. Yet there is a clear need to go beyond personalities and look at problems which appear to be more persistent. This is as true of Pakistan as of other countries in our neighbourhood including Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Afghanistan, to mention only the most troubled ones.
A stanza in a famous poem by Dushyant Kumar starts by saying – All preparations have been completed at the bathing ghats. At first, we think the poet means preparations for bathing have been completed. Then he stuns us by adding “for anyone to drown if he desires” (Ho gai har ghat par sampurna vyavastha, doob le ab jise bhi doobna hai).
This is often quoted to refer to the self-destructive actions of powerful, ambitious persons and authorities, their hubris, over-reach and over-ambition. One has been increasingly reminded of these words in the context of recent happenings in the neighbourhood.
Recent times have been exceptionally difficult, partly due to the pandemic and partly due to the confusion, uncertainties and serious mistakes relating to the pandemic response. Authorities in our neighbourhood were caught up in difficult situations, not of their making. Most recently, Ukraine war-related factors have added to everyone’s problems. Hence, this ought to have been a time for, firstly, cautious decision making and, secondly, for regimes to reach out to opposition forces to create consensus on policies and reform in crucial areas.
Unfortunately, the opposite appears to have happened. The way in which the military in Myanmar subverted the democratic verdict and democratic processes to imprison important leaders and elected representatives in early 2021 was shocking. This has been accentuated by the junta’s reckless actions since then.
In Sri Lanka, the terrible mistake of concentrating too much power in the hands of a family was aggravated by their shockingly irresponsible use of this power. By the time they felt the need for building bridges and national unity, it was too late. The close relationship Sri Lanka had built with China could not prevent its descent into shortages of most essential commodities and mass protests relating to this.
Pakistan had been moving from one political tension to another and there should have been timely intervention to check things from deteriorating beyond a point, particularly as due to a combination of factors the economic position had also become precarious. But this was not to be, and people were reduced to watch- ing quite helplessly while leading personalities and forces continued to clash till the situation got almost out of control.
If the people of Afghanistan had suffered a lot due to the presence of American forces, they have continued to suffer a lot even after their unseemly exit due to a complex set of factors. The Taliban could have made a sincere new beginning by showing more respect for human rights generally and for women’s rights, in particular, an opportunity it appears to have missed. The distress of people has worsened due to the US diverting over $3 billion of Afghanistan’s funds to its domestic use, a case of daylight robbery in which the richest country has deprived the poorest.
Serious mistakes have been made also in other South Asian countries like India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, but these have been overshadowed by the more disruptive ones in these four countries. What is worrying is the rapidity with which the situation deteriorated in these countries, which indicates that internal checks and balances have weakened considerably. The need to maintain robust checks is an important lesson that the region can take from the rapid escalations of these crises.
What is common to all these countries is that the gulf between the ruling regime and the opposition forces is often allowed to become too wide, and this reduces opportunities for national unity and for cooperation to avoid disruption. This is clearly the case in all four countries and in Bangladesh. India used to have a much better record in this respect, but this has been fast declining in recent times.
In democracies, regimes come and go but if there are some common goalposts it will help stability and continuity. India has a good Constitution in terms of commitment to democracy, secularism, non-discrimination, and justice and so this helps to fulfil this role. In some other countries, the binding commitment of the Constitution to these basics may not be so strong. So, it also helps to create common minimum programs based on these precepts. An essential principle should be for the military to confine itself to playing its legitimate role and not meddle in politics, civil governance, and the economy. This may be easier said than done in countries like Myanmar and Pakistan but clearly remains very important.
The concentration of too much power in the hands of a few, or a clique of powerful leaders and their affluent friends, is a prescription for disaster. The economy is very important everywhere. South Asia is stressed in terms of a lower resource base relative to population density, and a region which is more vulnerable to climate change. Its leaders should realize that people need much more commitment on their part to implement policies of equality, justice, environmental protection, social harmony, peace, and economic progress. The best path to avoiding a crisis is to stick to these precepts and policies.
(The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food. )