The world’s largest democracy, India, is surrounded by regimes that are authoritarian, monarchial, or faltering democracies. Barring Nepal which got independence in 1923 and Bangladesh which got carved out in 1971, most of the neighbouring countries secured independence in the late 1940s. Since then, Bhutan has steadily morphed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, while China has retained an ironfisted one-party Communist rule. Most others, barring a notable Sri Lanka, have had a rather tempestuous and unsure relationship with democracy or liberality.
Recently, US President Joe Biden stated the obvious when he said about the Chinese ‘leader for life’, Xi Jingping, “he doesn’t have a democratic, small-D, bone in his body”. Earlier in the Chinese narrative, ‘Eternal Chairman’ Mao Zedong had reigned over China till his death at 82. Now, Xi Jinping has taken a leaf out of Mao’s playbook of autocrats; he disingenuously posited plans for the five-year period of 2021-2025 and future targets till 2035 ~ a telltale way of suggesting his continuation till 2035, by when he too would be 82!
Xi Jinping pulls no punches when he says straight-faced, ‘Democracy will not suit China’, and the dictatorship continues. On the southern border of China is the much-in-news Myanmar, which also shares a 1,600 kms long border with India. This geographical contiguity with a practicing democracy and a ‘benign’ dictatorship tests the preferences of the powers that be in Naypyidaw. While India traditionally voiced support for the prodemocracy opposition in the 50 years of junta rule (1962-2011), the Chinese built bridges by being nonjudgmental and supportive in terms of investments.
Yet, irrespective of the military or the civilian government in Naypyidaw, a certain discomfort with the Chinese interference with the local insurgent groups lingered and murmurs of ‘debttrap’ kept the Myanmar leadership away from becoming another Chinese-minion state like Pakistan. However, owing to internal power struggles, the Myanmar junta has re-seized power and the country’s brief tryst with democracy is truncated, for now. The military ‘coup’ (not the official word used by the junta) was almost foretold as the Generals were getting increasingly queasy with Aung San Suu Kyi’s competitive majoritarism and popularity, that could potentially divest the military of its deliberately inserted levers-of-control, in the constitution. For now, the newest convert to democracy in the region is back to military fatigues.
Like Myanmar, Nepal too shares common borders with China and India, and it too is going through its own crisis with democracy. Like the storyline from Myanmar, it is not the citizenry that has rejected democracy, but internal feuds within the corridors-ofpower that have weakened the barely spread roots of democracy. The erstwhile monarchy had reluctantly acceded ground to democracy, even if the same came along with majoritarian claws in the spirit of the new constitution in 2015. The path was made further complicated with two disparate communist parties winning jointly and the inevitable tinderbox within the Singha Durbar started getting authoritarian undertones. Personal egos as opposed to ideological concerns have led to the political implosion within the ruling Nepal Communist coalition, and fledgling foundations of democracy, have been damaged.
To the west of India is its vivisected land of Pakistan that has seen repeated coup d’états or the unsaid pulling of national strings by the military General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi, as opposed to the Majlis-e-Shura (Parliamentary Assembly) in Islamabad. But for one full fiveyear tenure (2008-2013) of a civilian government, all others have been aborted by overt or covert military interventions. So deeply entrenched is the roll of the military dice in Pakistan that recently the Director General of Pakistan Army’s media wing, Maj Gen Babar Ifthikar, had to issue a public clarification rejecting perceptions of the military’s dalliances with the opposition alliance, Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM).
The barely convincing statement read, “The people who are making speculations, I requested them previously as well [and] I will tell them again: do not drag army into politics.” Ironically, last year the opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif had alluded to nefarious activities of the Pakistani military and its affiliated agencies as ‘State above the State’. Much of Pakistan’s democracy is stage managed optics and real ‘redlines’ are drawn from Rawalpindi GHQ. Further above, Afghanistan has seen all possible forms of governance from monarchy, dictatorship, and theocracy to portents of democracy that were seeded in 2004. However, the violently polarised swathes of Afghanistan witnessed their lowest ever electoral participation in the latest 2019 elections, with just 28 per cent turnout. With looming US troops’ pullout and flaring poverty, unemployment, and insecurity, not to mention the advancing hordes of Taliban, democracy has never looked shakier in Kabul since 2004.
Bangladesh grappled with frequent breakdown in democracy in the initial years, though for the last couple of decades, the military has taken a visible backseat. With all the crests and troughs of democracy, the socioeconomic performance and growth of Bangladesh has outstripped the neighbourhood. The once ridiculed ‘termite factory’, or as described very uncharitably as the ‘bottomless basket’ by Henry Kissinger, has defied all naysayers in staying the course and emerging as a resilient success, within decades of its independence in 1971.
Another nation on the Indian rim that has persisted assiduously with democracy is Sri Lanka ~ unsurprisingly, Sri Lanka leads the Millennium Development Goal (MDGs) targets for the region in areas of poverty alleviation, food security, school enrolment, gender parity in education, infant and under-five mortality ratio, immunization coverage etc. Similarly, Bhutan had accelerated its progress in recent years and the timing of the same coincided with the democratisation of governance.
The link of progress with democracy is not linear, but neither is it oblivious of the same. Some of the most progressive periods of socio-economic progress in India coincide with the times when the impulse in ‘Delhi’ was more liberal, inclusive, and secular ~ elements that are irreplaceable ingredients of democracy.
Whenever the strain of majoritarianism or lazy conversations of ‘too much democracy’ prevailed (e.g. Emergency), the slide of democracy and the foundations of peace and progress, quantifiably slid. While India persists with its inherent belief in democracy with all its inefficiencies ~ many in the neighbourhood are succumbing to the ‘quick fixes’ of authoritarian options that come masked under short term attractions of majoritarianism, but are neither successful nor sustainable, in the long run.