Democracy in the Region: Fighting a No-win Battle?
When Benazir Bhutto was in the wilderness, she convened at Karachi a meeting of the opposition leaders from South Asia. India was represented by former Prime Minister V P Singh. What emerged from the meeting was the resolve of opposition leaders to strengthen democracy in their respective countries.
Apparently, Benazir wanted to corner the limelight because she was going down the hill in Pakistan at that time. This was amply clear when no standing committee or secretariat was created for the follow-up. Had it been done, it would have served the region well when democracy is fighting a losing battle in most of the South Asian countries. And even where democracy prevails, the institutions are losing their vigour.
One need not discuss Pakistan because a democratic set-up headed by the military has replaced the elected government. Still the country is an example of democracy thrown on the heap of authoritarianism by a civilian government and the opposition's refusal to accept its legitimacy even after the victory at the polls. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, more so the first, are on top of the list of countries where the opposition's actions may snuff out democracy. Their protests indicate that they would rather have dictatorship than elected governments.
Begum Khaleda Zia, heading the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has only a one-point programme: how to return to power. Had her efforts been confined to such methods as didn't harm the country, it would have mattered little. But she is giving a call for hartal practically every second day. That the country's economy is being hit beyond repair is none of her business so long as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is put to trouble.
Even if one were to ignore Khaleda Zia's obsession against New Delhi, how would she explain her abuses on India if she ever came to occupy the treasury benches? New Delhi has shown Dhaka understanding and accommodation on the sharing of the Ganges waters between the two countries.
Sri Lanka's United National Party (UNP) is also driven by its animus against President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Her re-election is an indication that her policies are more acceptable to the voters than those of opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe.
It is understandable that he has refused to join the government but what is not understandable is his hostile posture even after his defeat at the polls. No doubt, the rumours of the UNP's complicity with the LTTE are unfounded. But the party has always opposed to Chandrika's ways to bring the secessionist LTTE on to the negotiation table. It is strange that the UNP leaders should go to the extent of preferring military rule to Chandrika's democratic regime.
Nepal may not come into the category of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. But the opposition's, primarily the communists' actions only aggravate Katmandu's economic problems. The fact is that the government in power spends a substantial amount of money on curbing the Maoists' insurgency in the north and finds little money for the anti-poverty programmes.
The communists in Nepal have to decide whether they want an armed revolution or the ballot box. They cannot ride two horses at the same time: some taking to the gun and some to election. It is an open secret that the leadership of the various communist parties has been in touch with one another to devise a strategy to capture power, by hook or by crook. There is nothing wrong in replacing a government but it is not violence which should dictate the process. It is absurd to think that the socially-progressing will win the battle.
Bhutan's king remains autocratic. He has ousted thousands from the country on the ground that they are foreigners. People of Nepalese origin are his target, although they have been living in Bhutan for decades. New Delhi is not allowing the refugees, who have taken shelter in Nepal, to return to Bhutan. But how long can they be stalled from returning to their motherland? The Bhutan king may one day face the same situation as the king in Nepal did when power was wrested from his hands through an uprising. As Rangthong Kumlay Dorji, chairman of the Durk National Congress (DNK), Bhutan, has said in a recent symposium in New Delhi that "democracy is inevitable in Bhutan, it is just a mater of time."
Myanmar is the worst example of military rule. Even after holding election and promising to transfer power to the elected, the military junta stays in power. Suu Kyi remains under house arrest. People voted her National League for Democracy in a predominant majority, defeating the candidates of the State Peace and Development Council, the military establishment had fielded. But after the defeat, the junta went back on its undertaking. It did not restore the assembly, nor did it part with power. Instead, it unleashed repression against Suu Kyi's supporters. many of them still languish in jail.
The atmosphere is that of the days of the emergency in India. High-handed and arbitrary actions are carried out with impunity. Tyrants have sprouted at all levels. Desire for self-preservation has become the sole motivation for action. The ethical considerations inherent in public behaviour have become gradually dim. The fear generated by threat has become so pervasive that public servants act as willing tools of tyranny. People are so afraid that they have not even expressed grief for her bereavement. In doing so, they do not want to take the risk of annoying the rulers and getting a still harsher dose of oppression.
And what should Suu Kyi infer from close relations between democratic countries and the ASEAN? The later has admitted Myanmar to its fold. Thailand has even officially sponsored the trip of General Than Shwe, head of the military junta. There was not even a whimper of protest from any one, including the Vajpayee government. Surprisingly, New Delhi has still been talking to the military junta. For trade or other purposes, the people of Myanmar should not be betrayed.
In India itself democracy is only up to the polls. There is no transparency in governance and the ruling National Democratic Alliance does not consult the opposition in taking decisions. It was clear in the recent Indian Airlines hijacking case. The opposition was consulted when the government had decided to swap some 160 passengers and the crew for the three terrorists. The opposition should have been associated from the beginning. Then it could have felt involved.
Our government - the Vajpayee regime alone is not to blame - has a tendency to keep things under wraps. I asked in the Rajya Sabha why the Henderson-Brooks report on the India-China war had not been made public even after 38 years. The reply was that it could not be done in the public interest. The Subhramaniyam Committee report on Kargil looks like going the same way. Sharing information with people is the essence of democracy.
Another developing trend in India is to constitute independent committees, whether for the appointment of judges or for the selection of persons at high places, because the institutions are not considered independent. Then why have them at all? The remedy is to make them independent and vibrant so that they function efficiently. By ignoring them the Centre is only ruining the little that we still have.