South Asia’s tryst with democracy here to stay

April 27th, 2008 - 12:24 pm ICT by admin  

By Harold A. Gould
In our understandable preoccupation with the political events unfolding in Pakistan, we may be doing an injustice to an equally compelling process that is taking place across much of South Asia. While we focus our attention on the struggle of democracy to emerge in Pakistan, on India’s western frontier, very little notice has been taken of a comparable democratic process that is struggling to be born in Nepal, on India’s northern frontier. There we have the inspiring spectacle of a transition from a struggle between an archaic, outmoded monarchy and an anachronistic Maoist revolution being transformed before our eyes, under a gentlemen’s agreement that is a prelude to an impending new democratic constitution, into a contest between chartered political parties for seats in a national parliament.

Remarkably, there has been scant news coverage of the fact that a constitutional mandate has been put in motion, despite all the odds, which has enabled meaningful democratic elections to occur in that remote mountain kingdom for the first time in a decade.

Let us consider what is actually taking place in Nepal. Does it in any way compare with what has been taking place in Pakistan? And, if so, what does it all mean? Even more important: are there any discernible connections between developments in both of these countries and the state of political affairs in India? For often the comparative perspective is a casualty when the media focus their attention on immediate events, on the turmoil and terror that accompanies the day-to-day unfolding of tumultuous political events, and fail to discern broader patterns of social change.

What, then, is actually taking place in Nepal even as we speak?

First, despite all predictions to the contrary notwithstanding, a genuinely democratic election really did take place in Nepal. Yes, there was some violence, even some deaths. But according to the testimony of international observers like the European Union, the Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel), and the Carter Center, the elections were predominantly fair and the results valid. “From what I have seen so far”, declared former US president Jimmy Carter, “with the voting day and the bringing of polling boxes…to the central stations and the beginning of the counting, and all that, [the election] has been free and fair with some minor discrepancies…”

Around 17.6 million voters, out of a total electorate of 20 million, cast ballots at 20,000 polling stations for a 601-seat Constituent Assembly. This is 60 percent of the electorate; greater than the percentage of voters who cast votes in American presidential elections.

Strikingly, the Maoist party, which has been in the forefront of the revolutionary violence which brought down King Gyanendra’s autocratic dictatorship, laid down its arms (or at least put them in escrow under UN supervision), agreed to participate in the democratic process; it was rewarded by garnering a plurality of the vote (30.27 percent) and the largest number of seats (121) in the impending Constituent Assembly. The party inspired by Mao Zedong’s Asian version of total revolution and the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ voluntarily placed itself under the tutelage of the South Asia consensual political model. The political model pioneered by India under Jawaharlal Nehru has tamed extremism on its Himalayan border and civilised government has consequently been given a chance in Nepal.

In order to help craft a constitution which sets democracy in motion and since they do not have an absolute majority of seats in the Constituent Assembly, the Maoists will be compelled to reach out to other parties and form coalitions with some who do not share their ideological certitudes. Compromise and consensus becomes a necessity if government is going to function. Yet this process seems already to be altering the nature of the political dialogue in Nepal. The Maoist chairman, Prachanda (real name: Pushpa Kamal Dahal), speaks of bringing about an “economic revolution” not through the standard Marxist-Leninist recipe such as collectivisation, but says he will pursue cooperation with the private sector. Kush Kumar Joshi, president of the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI), appeared optimistic that the new government would make the country more ‘investment friendly’. The Central Working Committee of the Nepali Congress, which lost badly in the elections, has pledged “to assist the government from outside and play a positive role in framing a new constitution” as long as the Maoists honour “the 12-point understanding and the comprehensive peace accord.” There has been no indication that the Maoists will refuse to do so. There will be a wide spectrum of eight parties plus independents in the Constituent Assembly from which coalitions can be crafted. In the words of Arpana Shrestha, a 47-year-old woman waiting to vote in Kathmandu, “Always there was blood in Nepal. Not any more” (Washington Post, April 11th).

Another important sign is that Shiva Pradhan, the army representative on the Joint Monitoring Coordination Committee (JMCC), has given his assurance that the Nepal Army will work under the direction of any elected government when it comes to power. Keeping the army in the barracks and out of politics is, as we know, a fundamental ingredient in facilitating democracy.

What is taking place in Nepal appears, at the structural level, to parallel what we have seen occurring in Pakistan. And this may tell us something about the social forces now emerging in South Asia. After long sagas of dictatorship and failed government in both countries, democratic stirrings are strongly in evidence. What started as consensual democracy in India more than 50 years ago appears at last to be radiating outward into the South Asian perimeter. This is not so much because India has been overtly driven to spread its version of the Westminster system to its neighbours as that the social forces and underlying socio-cultural realities that brought it to fruition in India have at last begun to strike pay-dirt alongside India’s borders. But India’s example as a democracy which has survived the vicissitudes of constitutionally structured open politics for half a century must be seen as a role model and stabilising influence on what is occurring on the periphery. It places a burden on India to keep the eace and reach out to its neighbours.

It now behoves the scholarly community to assay the implications of these changes. But clearly it points to the emergence of a Pakistani society that is less susceptible to a return to the kind of banana republic, military-feudal manipulation of Pakistani society that has characterized it past. It is not that there will be no setbacks, especially if the threat of military tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir should re-ignite, or if consensualism between radical and moderate forces in Nepal should break down in the process of trying to achieve a democratic constitution.

But even if they do, I think it is possible to predict that the trend is right; secular democratic forces along the periphery give promise that the ‘South Asian consensual model’ is destined to become the dominant nexus throughout the Indian subcontinent.

(Dr. Harold Gould is Visiting Scholar at the Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Virginia. He can be contacted at

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