South Asia’s authoritarian legacy

South Asia’s authoritarian legacy

Syed Mohammad Ali June 04, 2021
The writer is an academic and researcher. He is also the author of Development, Poverty, and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge

It has been over 70 years since the British left South Asia. Yet, most of the countries in the region have not been able to rid themselves of their colonial legacy of exploiting social divides and perpetuating extractive state institutions. As a result, many of the challenges facing South Asia today can be attributed to non-representative, irresponsive, and unaccountable national governments whose primarily objective is hanging on to power.

Authoritarianism remains a persistent problem across much of our region, even if authoritarian tendencies exhibit themselves in different forms. In Bangladesh, for example, the political sphere has been dominated by two ruling dynasties with intermittent periods of military rule, and now the near chokehold of the Awami League on domestic politics since 2009.

India, the largest democracy in the world, has shaken off the dynastic rule of the Congress but the country’s socio-economic and political imagination has increasingly been dominated by Hindu majoritarianism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was persona non grata in the United States for his alleged role in the Gujarat massacre when he was the chief minister of that state. Yet, after he became the prime minister, Modi has repeatedly received the red-carpet treatment not only in the US but in much of Europe, as the leader of “the largest democracy in the world”. Yet, Modi remains adamant that he will continue manipulating ethno-nationalist tendencies to distract from his lacklustre governance.

In Sri Lanka, on the heels of the Easter bombing of 2019, we saw the return to power of the Rajapaksa brothers who had crushed the LTTE in 2009. Their comeback has given wind to ethno-nationalist Sinhalese Buddhists, whose disdain has widened from Tamil Hindus and Christians to the Muslim minority in the country. The Rajapaksa brothers led a brutal operation against the LTTE, which evoked much international criticism. Yet, both the US and Great Britain had remained reluctant to back earlier Norwegian efforts to negotiate peace with the Tamils in lieu of greater autonomy, as this peace deal did not align with their own perceived geostrategic interest of preserving a unitary Sri Lankan state.

In the case of Pakistan, the notion of Islam proved unable to keep Bangladesh from breaking away in 1971 frustrated by the hegemonic assertions of the western wing of the country. Yet, the Pakistani establishment has continued relying on politicisation of religion to legitimate its direct and indirect political influence. The creation of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf provided an alternative option to voters but many citizens remain disappointed with the incumbents for their continued reliance on political families to assume power, and for their inability to deliver meaningful change.

The elite capture of resources remains a persistent problem in not only Pakistan but in the other large South Asian states as well. While Bangladesh has performed impressively compared to its neigbouring states in terms of improving the overall lives of its people, widespread corruption, and deprivation remain major problems plaguing all four of the largest South Asian states.

Increasing liberalisation and reliance on market-based policies propagated by the World Bank and the IMF have not been able to alleviate inequalities or deliver sustainable economic growth and human development in South Asia.

While colonialism ended many decades ago, vested geopolitical interests, perpetuated by local political elites, continue to hinder representative democracy to flourish in this most populous region of the world. Defence spending and debt servicing take an inordinate share of our national incomes while much of the citizenry remains deprived of the social investments needed to ensure a decent quality of life.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 4th, 2021.

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