Democracy Asia 
State of Democracy in South Asia Study
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SDSA- overview of chapters

Chapter 1- Aspiration for Democracy

The citizens of South Asia share the contemporary global aspiration for democracy. As the idea of democracy travels to different parts of the world and to various social groups and communities, ordinary citizens come to attach positive connotations to the word ‘democracy’ as understood in the various languages of this region. They buy the idea of democracy as well as what today is the most commonly accepted institutional form of democracy, namely rule by elected representatives. More than an abstract preference or a simple acquiescence, most South Asians believe that democracy is suitable for their own country and prefer democracy over authoritarianism. While support for the institutional form of democracy is determined by access to education, media exposure and the experience of living under democratic conditions, support for the idea of democracy cuts across social barriers.

Chapter 2- Meaning of Democracy

Even as South Asians have come to accept the global ideal of democracy as their own commonsense, they have grafted on to it their own somewhat distinctive meanings. Drawing upon the radical tradition within the West they have reworked the idea of democracy and made it carry an additional moral burden. In South Asia, democracy has come to stand for a substantive promise of rule by equal communities of citizens, and the well-being of all in terms of dignity and freedom from fear as well as want. This version pays less attention to some of the procedural aspects of democracy seen to be central to liberal, western democracies such as equal access to rule of law and to guard against tyranny of the majority or a powerful minority. These somewhat distinctive meanings attached to democracy in South Asia are connected to the specificities, the strengths and weaknesses of the democratic enterprise in the region.

Chapter 3- From Promise to Design

The various constitutional designs that embody the South Asian idea of democracy in the different countries of the region reflect a slippage between the promise and the design of democracy. Even as the founding documents have mostly provided for equal citizenship, equal and enforceable rights and a free and accountable system of political competition to elect sovereign governments, notwithstanding occasional lapses and serious lacunae, the aspiration of well-being inducing democracy, constraints of socio-economic structures and a new regional and global context have produced tensions, creative as well as disruptive, leading to continual demands for redesign and occasions for constitutional subversion.

Chapter 4- Institutions and People

Giving meaningful and operational shape to constitutional designs requires the setting up of an elaborate set of democratic institutions which can both mediate the practice of democracy and connect the evolving democratic order to the people. In South Asia, though these institutions enjoy formal sanction, this by itself has failed to ensure that they have come to develop roots in society. One implication is that representative institutions have not only suffered from an erosion of autonomy but enjoy a low level of popular trust, often having to yield significant decision making spaces to non-representative institutions. Paradoxically, whenever these institutions have successfully guarded and asserted their autonomy, they have tended to become less accountable to the people. The low level of people’s trust in institutions is a constant reminder of the gap between the promise and the working of democracy in our societies.

Chapter 5- Dealing with Diversity

If the design of democracy provides spaces for the recognition, inclusion and accommodation of spatial and social diversity, the working of democracy has led to differential achievements of this possibility. The dominance of the idea of a nation-state sets limits to the imaginative and political possibilities available for negotiation of democracy with diversity. Despite this the countries in the region have been more successful in the accommodation of spatial diversity. Negotiating social diversities has proved more difficult in the face of the rise of majoritarianism. A successful negotiation of democracy and diversity depends on the definitions of political community, mobilisation of collective memories, nature of state power and the strength of countervailing forces against majoritarianism.

Chapter 6- Party Political Competition

Political parties play a central role in democratic contestations in South Asia. As the principal vehicles of mass mobilisation, the most salient site of political attachment and participation and even the easiest targets of abstract disaffection, political parties continue to be critical to the present and future of democracies in South Asia. That is why their deficiencies—absence of internal democracy, criminalisation, elite capture, ‘political dynasty’ rule and inability to offer meaningful choices to voters—merit urgent attention.

Chapter 7- Beyond Parties and Elections

Dissatisfaction with electoral politics has led to a search for new forms of civic activismsocial and political – but not electoral. This non-party political process, complimentary to and in contention with the electoral political process has helped expand and deepen democracy. Nevertheless, the growing salience of religious and militant mobilisations, sometimes insurgency, reflects deep infirmities with formal institutions of politics and governance, creating a crisis of legitimacy and trust.

Chapter 8- Freedom from Fear

Even as the working of democracy in South Asia has opened up a large number of different pathways towards progress of individuals and communities, the outcomes produced lie within a fairly limited range. Though people routinely live unsafe lives, the overall levels of felt insecurity are not as high as would be expected. The promise of freedom from fear has been realised only for a small minority and things are not getting better for a large number. They may get worse if the gap between the kind of security that people want (law and order, personal and physical security) and what the state and its expert policy-makers focus on providing (state boundaries, inter-state conflict, terrorism and insurgency) is not bridged.

Chapter 9- Freedom from Want

Continued co-existence of mass democracy and mass poverty is both a challenge and a paradox of democracy in South Asia. While the working of democracy has not led to freedom from want, it may have given more space for struggles for securing better economic conditions. A manifold mismatch informs the relationship between democracy and freedom from want: between the objective economic condition of the citizens and their sense of satisfaction, between objective and subjective placement in the economic hierarchy, between the subjective assessment of the household and the country and between popular preferences on economic policies and the policies pursued by the state. While this mismatch between the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ economic conditions of the people creates a space for democratic contestation, it also allows for state inaction on poverty and destitution.

Chapter 10- Political Outcomes

Unlike the mixed record in helping secure freedom from want and freedom from fear for most of its citizens, the working of democracy in South Asia has resulted in more hope-generating ‘intangible’ political outcomes. The institutions of democracy have helped to empower former subjects into becoming full citizens, even though the substance of citizenship remains subject to contestation. The idea of democracy has introduced the modern language of rights and helped provide an inclusive and dignified space to hitherto excluded groups—in short, reshaped the normative visions of people. At the same time, even as the practice of democracy equips citizens with new yardsticks of critical judgement, its failure to often live up to its own standards remains a source of disappointment, it not discontent.

Chapter 11- Challenges and Futures

The experience of democracy in South Asia, from the heady days of decolonisation and independence to the early years of the current century, presents challenges at multiple levels. While different countries have fared differently in meeting the foundational challenges, they all face the challenge of expansion and deepening. These challenges call for an urgent thinking about a political agenda for democratic reforms, for revitalising political imagination to re-imagine the state. Despite experiencing somewhat different trajectories, the countries of South Asia face similar key challenges and unresolved issues that may shape the future prospects of democracy in the region.

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