In keeping with a worldwide trend, multiparty polity is no longer anything new in South Asia. Bhutan and the Maldives also having adopted is variations, political parties are no novelty in the world’s most-populous region of South Asia. For 30 years, the Maldives was witness to a sole political party headed by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who was at the helm of the island chain for thee decades. But he, too, had to give way to the demands of the times echoed in the course of popular demonstrations in the streets. As soon as the one-party system was lifted, Gayoom found himself out of power. Voters bundled him out from the presidential palace at the first opportunity given to cast their verdict in favour of an alternative party. This was after Nepal saw the ban on political parties lifted in 1990. Reading the trend shrewdly, the absolute king in Bhutan, too, finally allowed political parties to be instituted. In Afghanistan, once the Soviet puppet regime of Babrak Karmal was ousted and brutally killed barely two years after the world’s first communist regime collapsed in 1991, political parties began functioning openly. But then mere existence of political parties does not automatically denote a functioning democracy. What is expected from the ruling lot is democratic governance in all its aspects, with also prompt and effective delivery of the promises made to the voting public. As is too often found, election pledges made to attract voters are easier said than translated into action. Records and experiences across the world underscore this tellingly and frustrating frequency.
Boat rocking events Barring Nepal, all South Asian states were for long either a protectorate or colony until a few years after the end of World War II. Local populations, whose numbers outstripped those of the colonists many times over, had been yearning for independence especially since the early years of the 19th century. As perceived, defined and surveyed by agencies originating headquartered in, and funded by contributors, in the Western world, indexes pertaining to human rights, democracy and press freedom put the average South Asian record as less than satisfactory. In a number of cases, including press freedom, Bhutan and the Maldives are ranked better than the rest of the region, including India which asserts itself as the world’s largest democracy. The word “largest” is a euphemism for the “most populous”, as if reminding neighbouring China of its standing in such ratings. Criminalisation of politics is the bane of South Asian politics. The press every now and then touches upon this issue. It is not a question of which parties harbour such elements; the question is better framed if it were to ask: Which group is free from such blot? This has had adverse effects on the image and reputation of the countries in the region. After the British were finally made to quit their colonial rule in India and other parts of the region, more than 70 years ago, the West tended to view the second-most populous country as fully representative of the entire region of South Asia. The bipolar scheme of political equations that the post-World war decades tossed up is in for a major change. The world is witnessing an emerging multipolar world. The United States is most unlikely to command the scale of dominance it wielded for so long. The ongoing decade has witnessed enough indicators to say so. With it, the European powers will also lose the clout their proximity to and rapport with the once No. 1 superpower, which seems destined to decline in the international arena. South Asia, too, is in the throes of steep changes, though its course and direction might be confined to mere speculation. Much will depend on India’s approach and attitude toward its bigger neighbour China, the economic superpower well set to attaining the status of world No. 1 economic might, leaving behind long-time reigning global economic powerhouse, the United States, to the second spot. Countries barely tolerated as independent and sovereign a decade or two ago are in for being taken more seriously and with greater respect. As such, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) sidelined would mean lost opportunities. Pakistan can look forward to expand trade with Central Asia and West Asia. It is a major reliable partner of China. Pakistan is treated like a gateway to the Muslim world. With its global status soaring, Beijing would want stability and predictability in its immediate neighbourhood and also among its friendly trade partners. Bangladesh is about to rise as an emerging economy just as Indonesia in the Far East is expected to be developed likewise. With a growth rate of more than 16 per cent a year and garments accounting for some 27 billion, Bangladesh, which became an independent state in 1971, is accorded high marks by none other than the next No. 1 economic superpower. Sri Lanka was always ahead the rest of the region in terms literacy and manageable population growth. Had it not been for the three-decade of Tamil violent insurgency that ended a decade ago, it would have by now been a South Asian economic tiger.
Independent nation China’s no-political-strings policy will draw many countries to look favourably at it. The aggressive manner in which the West has pursued its policies to being applied in other countries and continents has not gone unnoticed. Going by indulgent European agencies that never made a big issue about Druk regime’s policy of ethnic cleansing of Nepalis in Bhutan is scored better than the rest of South Asia in terms of press freedom. The smallest in the region, the Maldives is likely to grow as a tourism destination to manage its population of 350,000. Colonial past is another characteristic which stretched over all but Nepal among the SAARC member states. Although independent throughout history and ranked in the list of the world’s 20 oldest states, Nepal never escaped the repercussions of colonial rule in the rest of the region. Poverty is a common feature in South Asia which represents one-fifth of humanity. Once this is tackled at a reasonably satisfactory pace, the democratic character of member states will get consolidated.
(Former chief editor of The Rising Nepal, P. Kharel has been writing for this daily since 1973)