End of Year Editorial; Evolving Political Dynamics in South Asia


By M. Adil Khan, Guest Editor

2018 has been an eventful year for South Asia especially at the political level. During 2018 several countries in the region have had their elections and these elections have altered their political pictures. In others preparations for elections are underway and yet in others sub-national elections and their outcomes signal voter change of minds against the ruling party at the national level.

Again, in some countries where elections were undertaken in free and fair conditions have contributed to the formation of governments that have given new hopes to their citizens and yet in others democracy has been abused or are being abused to produce tailor-made outcomes that distances citizens from states. Again, in some countries duly elected governments are facing new and unwarranted challenges. Finally, role of geopolitics in shaping of domestic politics has also become quite evident in some of the countries of the region, lately.

By focusing on 2018 elections of countries – already conducted and the forthcoming – this editorial highlights and addresses the evolving political dynamics of South Asian countries and discusses the opportunities and risks. 

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka the general election of 2015 brought in a new government with the promise to improve its human rights record which was damaged  in recent years by the outgoing Rajapakse government. However, thanks to the political rift between the duly elected Prime Minister, Wickremasinghe and the President Sirisena who holds executive power has witnessed an unprecedented event – in October this year President sacked the Prime Minister on unsubstantiated allegations of a murder plot hatched apparently by one of Wickremasinghe‘s cabinet members and appointed the leader Rajapakse, a former much maligned President as the new Prime Minister. But Mr. Wickremasinghe refused to accept the sacking and calling it illegal and claiming that he enjoyed the majority support at the Parliament refused to leave the office and official residence of the Prime Minister. This was a weird situation – the country had two Prime Ministers at one time – one appointed by the President and the other, who was sacked by the president but enjoyed the support of the Parliament. In this tug of war of power, government stopped functioning and a situation of stalemate was created. At the end, Sri Lanka’s judiciary intervened and declared the action of the president as null and void and restored the government to Mr. Wickremasinghe and asked the beleaguered Mr. Rajapakse to go back to where he belonged – in opposition.

While being both weird and funny the real story behind this political circus is quite complex and in order to understand the calculus of Sri Lanka’s triangular political rivalry one would need to go beyond the obvious and focus more on the role played by foreign powers, namely India, a proxy imperialist in the region and China, the rising global power that continuously vie for a place in Sri Lanka’s commercial and security sectors.

Indeed, in recent times relationship between geopolitics, elections and formation of governments has been most evident and spectacular in Sri Lanka and as the latter analysis would reveal Sri Lanka is no exception, geopolitics encompasses the entire region these days.

Nepal

Himalayan and landlocked Nepal’s December 2017 election brought the two communist parties with closer ties to the neighboring China to power, and this election that saw the defeat of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s governing Nepali Congress party, an ally of India has radically shifted Nepal’s external alignments where influence of India which until recently enjoyed a firm grip, loosened significantly.

Maldives

The opposite of Nepal had happened in Maldives. In 2018 presidential election the victory of Mohamed Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih, a pro-Indian politician ended the rule of pro-Chinese Abdullah Yameen which has since thrown this country of isolated scattering of islands “in a geopolitical struggle between China, India and the West.” While the outgoing president Mr. Abdullah Yameen, an autocrat was hardly a darling of the Maldivians his defeat that has helped moving Maldives away from the fold of China to India’s, received much support in the West especially in the US. Ibu ‘Solih’s main challenge would be to manage the Chinese, the major investor in the country, without annoying the Indians.

Pakistan

Pakistan election in August 2018 has witnessed another interesting if not an unprecedented shift, both in policy as well as in style. The election has contributed to two very interesting dynamics. Firstly, the election has resulted in Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)  led by the former cricketer and celebrity Imran Khan, an avid anti-imperialist winning the election and taking over the mantle of governing by defeating the well-entrenched feudal politicians has been a pioneering act in Pakistan. Indeed, Imran Khan’s victory which some suspect to have been backed by the army has for the first time dislodged the family-run political parties of Bhuttos and Sharifs who until recently took turns to govern and plunder and pillage the country. Indeed, by winning the election Imran, a fiercely independent minded leader seemed to have achieved two inter-linking objectives –he has broken the chain of governing dynasties and more importantly, he has moved Pakistan away from its ‘’hired gun’’ role for the US hegemonic activities in the region. These are significant changes and are expected to benefit Pakistan. However these are early days though Imran’s initial steps especially those relating to corruption control and control of wasteful expenses by the government and most importantly, his refusal to play stooges to the US expansionist activities in the region look promising though Pakistan’s mounting debt, its legacy of corruption and its intractable political, ethnic and religious tensions that challenge it both from within and across the border render governing it a difficult task. Early signs are good and extreme caution and unwavering commitment are needed to steer Pakistan forward.

Bhutan

Bhutan is a small, landlocked kingdom in South Asia which was never formally colonized and in the late 20th century, its history of isolationism began to give way to a gradual democratization – a gift from the king himself – that culminated in the creation of a multiparty democracy in 2008 in the country.

Currently, Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy with the House of Wangchuck at the throne. Sitting on the ancient Silk Road, it borders Tibet (China) to the north and northwest and India to the southwest, south and east. Spanning an area of 38,394 square kilometers (14,824 square miles), the majority Buddhist country of 800,000 people is made up of three major ethnic groups, including the Bhutia, the Sharchop and the Nepalese.

Squeezed between India and China, Bhutan’s geographic challenge as a small nation is to maintain its sovereignty in its territory. India views Bhutan as vital to its strategic defense and has historically served as Bhutan’s dominant political, economic and security partner. China, on the other hand, has an ongoing border dispute with Bhutan with 269 square kilometers of disputed territory that crucially include the Doklam Plateau, which overlooks the Chumbi Valley that Beijing wants to possess to redress its military disadvantage against India in the region. India, which has its own border dispute with China, aims to prevent Beijing from resolving the dispute unilaterally with Bhutan. Although Bhutan is ready to solve its border dispute with China on a “one-to-one” basis as per a Bhutanese politician, “Since 1984, we have had 25 rounds of boundary talks with China. There is still no settlement because we also have to take into account India’s security concerns. But we have to think carefully and get a settlement that is good for Bhutan.”

India has discouraged Bhutan from opening diplomatic relations with other countries, particularly China, encouraging it instead to conduct diplomatic relations through its embassy in New Delhi. But now, with China outpacing India economically and militarily and showing its power through incidents like Doklam where last year India confronted China but later backed down, there is a creeping feeling among the Bhutanese that they may be riding the wrong wagon and that in order for Bhutan to move ahead they must get out of India’s shadow and assert its sovereignty more tangibly.

It is against the backdrop of these geopolitical tensions and the challenges of development and the latter is underpinned by its own concept, namely Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH) that in October this year the general election was held and for the third time, has elected a new party to head its government. In previous elections, the voters had chosen the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) over the incumbent Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT). However, in 2018 election PDP was unable to qualify in the primary round and DPT fought and lost to the new Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) that has made 25 pledges to implement in 120 days, a daunting task given that Bhutan faces mounting debt, mostly to India – which has been raked up by the previous government -, rising unemployment and intractable border dispute with China where India has a stake.

Like most smaller nations in South Asia Bhutan’s challenges are indeed daunting and are complicated further by the geopolitical rivalries between one regional power namely India which is also a proxy of the US in the region and China, a superpower.

Bangladesh

Bangladesh’s parliamentary election, its 11th is scheduled on 30th December this year.  Current government of Awami League has been ruling the country since 2008 though since 2014 the ruling party formed government through an opposition-no-show ‘election’ that had virtually rendered it an unelected and thus an illegitimate entity. The challenge for this year’s election is to see whether the government that has become quite accustomed to authoritarian style of governing would choose the path of a healthy multi-party free and fair election and restore democracy or whether it opts to stifle freedom and manipulate election and continues as before, is something of interest to watch and so far signs are anything but promising.

Joined by the mainstream opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that boycotted the 2014 election campaigning for this year’s election has commenced in all earnest. But the campaign atmosphere is neither free nor fair – opposition rallies are constantly attacked and their nominees are regularly threatened and jailed and recently, houses of several opposition leaders and workers have been burnt down and looted by the ruling party activists. Indeed, mired by bias and beset with violent intimidation of the opposition by the law enforcement agencies and ruling party thugs, the ruling Awami League, a favorite of India, hope of a free and fair election look increasingly remote. Regardless, one good thing is that the combined opposition led by a respectable octogenarian jurist that includes BNP has remained undeterred. Against all odds, the opposition has remained unmoved and continuing their campaign. By the time this issue goes to print election will be over and there will be a post-election government in Bangladesh. However, the future of Bangladesh will be decided on the processes and not so much the outcome of the election. A government formed through unfair means is likely to deepen dissent and intensify repression and push Bangladesh into a state of turmoil and instability.  

Afghanistan

In South Asia, the Afghan presidential and other three elections scheduled in 2018 have been postponed for three months and these are now likely to be held in July 13, 2019. Even though elections have been an important shift in political behavior in Afghanistan, on-going conflicts and non-participation of the Taliban that controls two/third of the country render elections in Afghanistan that never have had shortages of contestants including women contestants, are more symbolic than substantive. Furthermore, interferences into the works of the Election Commission by the ruling party, lack of intimidation free opportunities to campaign and corruption of the elected parliamentarians have reduced trust of Afghanis in election and more generally in ‘democracy’ as a whole. Indeed, until Talibans are brought to the table and included in the political process and Afghans are properly educated in the merits and processes of election adequately and more importantly, until tools of checks and balances are embedded within governing arrangements, chances of democracy taking roots in this conflict-ridden country of self-seeking politicians which is also a geopolitical playground of global and regional powers are bleak

India

The election to watch in the South Asia region is India’s which is due in 2019. Current government of BJP of which Modi is the Prime Minister has been ruling India since 2014, on the promise of corruption control and also on the platform of an ultra-nationalist exclusionary Hindutva policy that believes in supremacy of the Hindus, the religion of India’s majority population and marginalization of minorities especially its 14% Muslims, the largest minority group in India.

Last four years of Modi have produced mixed outcomes and more spectacularly, his promise of control of corruption and ‘achche din’ (good days) have not quite eventuated and instead, poverty and inequality has deepened such that more than 300 million people face hunger and starvation and that during the last four years income of 670 million that comprise India’s poor increased by only 1% while the richest one percent has secured 73 percent of the country’s wealth. As a result poor who comprise the majority in India are angry and in this rising tide of inequality and marginalization worst sufferers are the Muslims who also feel not just disempowered, but they also fear for their lives. Internal strife and brutalities of the Indian armed forces especially in Kashmir are also on the rise.

Indians are disillusioned with Modi and as a result Modi’s party has lost several state elections held this year where they once ruled. Indeed, if the results of state elections are any guide and given that elections in India are free and fair, it is not too difficult to speculate the outcome of the national election scheduled in 2019.

Lessons and Looking Ahead

Democracy especially free and fair elections are yet to take roots in most South Asian countries especially in the smaller countries. Among other factors geopolitics especially the rivalry between India, a proxy imperialist of the US in the region and China, a superpower that between them pick one or the other political party and a leader to advance their respective interests and bankroll and back their chosen leader and the party to manipulate elections to guarantee ‘win’ and form governments have had their fair share in stifling progress of democracy in the region.

Indeed, a quick glance at the political imbroglio of 2018 reveals that the region is caught in multiple social and power struggles, both internal as well as those that are externally imposed. The tension between what the people of South Asia aspire especially the freedom to choose, guide and control their leaders and the party that they elect to govern and what they get or are slapped with is rising, creating much resentments. These are bound to boil over one day and push the region into further chaos and a prolonged periods of instability. This is not a good news, neither for the citizens of these countries nor for the geopolitical rivals that somehow believe that stifling of freedom of people and wrecking the sovereignty of nations the best way to secure their interests. This is delusional.

Finally, while it is true that foreign entities have much to be blamed for lack of progress in democracy in the smaller countries of the region change must come from within. It is the people and their leaders that must break the shackles and say enough is enough and assert themselves and reclaim freedom.

Good news is that lately some in the region have done just that and are showing the way, demonstrating that change is possible provided leaders are morally conscious and people are united.

To a happier and better 2019 for the region and the world as a whole!

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