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State of Democracy in South Asia Study
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Thinking about democracy in a democratic way

Any report on the state of democracy in South Asia will inevitably attract some basic questions. Is there a South Asia or simply an Indian sub-continent? Is this cartographic entity, allegedly so first named by the State Department of the US and (so far unsuccessfully) sought to be given life by a fledging South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), a real and living political region? The countries in the region did share a past; is this also true of their present and future?

Second, in what sense do we have democracy in South Asia? After all, one country in the region is currently under military rule, even if the General is called the President; another is just limping back from the clutches of monarchy. If one continues to be wracked by a quarter century long ethnic civil war; another witnessed arguably its worst anti-minority riots only a few years back; and one more is in the grip of endemic civil strife on the eve of its national elections. So what democracy are we talking about?
Third, how do we determine the state of democracy? What criteria are we to adopt? Is there a universal definition, a yardstick of what it means to be democratic? Are we talking of democracies in South Asia or South Asian democracies? And what is South Asian about these democracies? Some of these issues are addressed in the following pages of this Report. Some will remain inadequately answered, and the answers, when advanced, are more likely to provoke than satisfy.

It may be in order to explain the intellectual backdrop against which this enterprise has been imagined and the Report has finally shaped. The project began with an unease with the global discourse on democracy, in particular the dominance of a one dimensional check-list model of democracy abstracted from the experience of a tiny part of the globe. Even more disturbing is the tendency, as democracy spreads to different parts of the globe, towards a shrinking of our notions of what it means to be democratic. In some measure it is because thinking about democracy is anything but democratic. This then became our first challenge, to democratise the thinking about democracy in more than one way.

One, the Report seeks to shift the locus of democracy discourse away from the global North to ‘most of the world’. We began with an unease with the universalist claims of democratic theory and its mirror image—the culturalist/essentialist explanations of democracy. The Report seeks to pluralise the conceptions of democracy and the attendant theoretical assumptions. It argues that there is a deep incompatibility between the idea of democracy and the privileging of universalist (modern western) notions of knowledge.

Two, democracy and foregrounding popular commonsense, decentres the dominance of the expert view, though we do realise that even public opinion is moulded, if not monopolised, by the expert. This helps to move away from a simple-minded polarity of democracy and non-democracy.

Third, the study pluralises the methodology for the assessment of democracy. In addition to bringing to the centre-stage of analysis people’s views and perception, the Report draws on dialogues with political activists, a range of specific case studies by experts and uses a broad framework for a qualitative assessment of democracy.

Four, by deliberately leaving the meaning of the enquiry open-ended to interpretation, there is an attempt to draw in the reader, not as a passive recipient of our judgments but as a co-participant in the drawing of conclusions. This is one reason why we did not adopt the framework of indexing democracy in the region. An index works as a tool of measuring ‘how much’ in comparison to the others, providing an ordinal ranking. More problematic, while giving the exercise an aura of being ‘scientific’, ‘objective’ and ‘impartial’, it pre-supposes as given a certain set of values and structures.

South Asia and democracy

As we proceeded with the study, we realised that the enquiry in fact led to a two-way question: It was exciting enough to ask what democracy had done to South Asia; it was even more rewarding to engage with what South Asia had done to democracy. It is this dual enquiry that forms the leitmotif of the Report. All through the previous half century and more South Asia has been experiencing profound transformations. How much of this change is the result of the introduction of democracy and popular self-rule, will always remain a topic for debate. After all, like elsewhere in the world, democracy did not enter the region as a single and isolated phenomenon. It was accompanied by at least three other factors: the forces of popular nationalism, the urge to and urgency of building and retaining a strong state, and the idea of modernity. The interplay of these factors has helped shape the nature and character of a South Asian democracy.

Overall, as the study makes clear, the experience of South Asia demolishes any remaining excuse for not adopting democracy. This is a region marked by complexities—a bewildering array of diversities, multiple and overlapping structures of social hierarchy, widespread poverty and inequality and intolerably high levels of illiteracy. Conventionally, each of these is understood as a source of concern and justification for not adopting democracy. Not just when the different countries in the region gained independence, but even subsequently, not many expected South Asia to choose, much less remain democratic. Many scholars in the region too were skeptical about the possibility of democracy taking roots. Yet, democracy continues to be the reigning ideology and aspiration of the peoples of the region; by far the most preferred political arrangement. In some ways, the shared commonsense across countries and other stratifications may help answer the question we begin with: Is there a political region called South Asia? And what makes it distinctive? Unlike the experience elsewhere, and against conventional wisdom, the efforts at working democracy on a sub-continental scale are somewhat unique.

South Asia not only witnesses the continued relevance of political parties, there is a deep interest in participation in politics, not just for self-fulfillment but as an instrument to pursue collective interests. Alongside influencing public policy, politics has the capacity to shape and articulate social identities and is the vehicle of these identities. It has also helped develop a culture of coalitions, not just political but social coalitions that assume a political form and perform the same function as consociationalism does in the West. Clearly, the South Asian experience has valuable lessons for western democracies rappling with the challenges of multi-culturalism. Finally, both the scale and diversity of South Asian societies has impelled experimentation with multiple and overlapping governments, local democracies and a decentering of the state. Accompanying these somewhat positive renderings are two disconcerting features. One, the various meanings of democracy in terms of popular assertions have so far given inadequate attention to the need for shared procedural norms. Second, and following from this, is a worrying drift towards less trust in institutions of political governance. Despite these failings, public faith in the norms and values of democracy remains robust.

This Report is the result of collaboration among academics from five countries from South Asia. This in itself is an achievement. Despite many misgivings and national-state level competitive and contested relations, for academics to come together and agree to study democracy and politics was to say the least, somewhat audacious. As we present this Report, we are therefore, happy that we could, without diluting our national identities, arrive at this first ever academic report card on democracy in South Asia prepared by the scholars of the countries of the region. We could do this because we recognised the importance of nationalism as a political force without adopting nationalism as a category of evaluation or assessment. Equally, because we took on board the compulsions of state policies without adopting those policies as theoretical explanations of the politics of the countries concerned. With humility, therefore, we dedicate this Report to the spirit of inquiry that characterised our collaboration and to the academic camaraderie among academicians of South Asia.

Not only is democracy becoming a fact of life in South Asia, each of the countries in the region has crucial lessons, both for its neighbours and for the rest of the world. In that sense, South Asian democracy is more than an India story, despite the country’s size and centrality to the future of democracy in the region. If India shows greater depth in its support for democracy and pro-diversity policies, Bangladesh reflects much deeper political identification and levels of political participation. Pakistan has a higher sense of national pride and Nepal proves the vitality of people’s aspirations and ability to struggle for a republican and democratic order. And Sri Lanka, arguably trapped in a seemingly intractable civil war, has a civil society wedded to peace. In this sense, the story of democracy in South Asia goes much beyond a narrative of democracy in India, it becomes a truly South Asian story. It need not surprise us if the more exciting developments shaping the practice of democracy in the region take place outside India in the near future.

Seven big ideas

In this story of South Asia, what are the main themes that emerge over and above the details discussed in the chapters of the Report?

1) The idea of democracy has transformed South Asia as much as South Asia has transformed the idea of democracy itself. The language, the practice and the institutions of democracy have transformed popular commonsense, everyday practices and relations of power. South Asia has reworked the idea of democracy by infusing it with meanings that spill over the received frame of the idea of democracy. These two influences have reinforced each other and have created South Asian cultures of democracy, distinctly modern and specifically South Asian.

2) Democracy in South Asia did not take a preordained path. The experience of democracy in this region defies conventional notions of preconditions and outcomes of democracy. South Asia disproves the notions that democracy cannot be instituted in conditions of mass poverty and illiteracy, that deep and politicized diversities are anathema to sustaining democracy, that democracy must be restricted to a small scale. It also goes against the expectation that democracy can be trusted to deliver development, security or dignity.

3) Politics continues to be one of the most vibrant forces shaping contemporary South Asia and is thus central to the present and future of democracy in the region. Political organisations, from political parties to non-party political formations, continue to attract a high degree of interest and involvement in politics and have the capacity not only to shape partisan loyalties and ideologies, but also social identities and economic interests.

4) In South Asia, people’s orientations to democracy are shaped principally by political experience rather than by their inherited identities. Religion by itself matters much less than the national political context in determining people’s orientation to democracy, security or economic well-being. Political learning by way of formal education, media exposure and experience of democracy matters much more than any other factor in support for trust in and satisfaction with democracy.

5) The strength of the practice of democracy in South Asia lies in its capacity to move away from the received model of democracy. Every aspect of democracy in South Asia is marked by a disjunction between the script and the practice of democracy that can take various forms: between constitutional design and political practice, between formal ideology and political orientation, between theoretical expectations and real-life outcomes. Rather than being merely a source of slippage and failure, and thus as distortion and deviation, this disjunction is also a source of innovation. Clearly, not all kinds of deviations are necessarily sources of strength, but most sources of strength arise out of a capacity to deviate from a given rule.

6) The encounter between South Asian cultures of democracy and the largely imported institutions has resulted in a bifurcation of, and within, institutions. On the one hand there are institutions or aspects of institutional functioning that while meeting all the formal requirements of democracy nevertheless lack in substance and vibrancy. On the other, there are institutions or aspects that connect to the people but do not have formal sanctity. Institutions and organisations that serve as a ‘hinge’ between these two dimensions hold the key to the successful working of democracy.

7) A mismatch between subjective and the seemingly ‘objective’ marks several dimensions of the working of democracy in South Asia: people’s self-placement does not match their class ranking, popular perceptions do not fit in with objective economic data, expert perceptions on security, activist assessments of institutions or official categories of majority/minority. This interplay of subjective and objective, of lay and the expert view, is not just unnecessary confusion; it is an important element in democratic politics allowing space for democratic negotiation as also a possibility of subversion.

Multiple Pathways of Studying Democracy

The State of Democracy in South Asia is a study based on plural methodologies. It follows four pathways to assessing democracy. We use the survey method for tapping the perceptions of people on a wide range of issues like meaning of democracy, trust in institutions, security concerns, etc. This mapping of public opinion is balanced by the series of Dialogues with political and social activists. Thirdly, scholars were invited to join this study by engaging in specific Case Studies. These Case Studies focus on the uniqueness of situations, issues or locations and illuminate the performance dimension of democracy very vividly. Finally, this study has developed a broad framework for the qualitative assessment of democracy. This assessment produced scholarly analyses of democracy in each country. All the four pathways were informed by the same intellectual agenda: to study the scope of the promise of democracy, to trace the institutional slippages in this promise, catalogue blockages in their working and evaluate the outcomes of the democratic enterprise.

The Cross Section Survey: One pathway of research was the cross section survey undertaken in all the five countries through a careful and scientific selection of the sample of the population. The Survey aimed at arriving at a snapshot of the views held by the people in the five countries on what democracy meant for them, people’s confidence in various institutions of governance, levels of political activity, people’s views on the status of minorities, on personal safety and perceptions of material condition of their family and the country.

The Dialogues: This component of this study sought to counterpose the opinions of the lay public with those of social and political activists. Dialogues recognized the existence and salience of varying positions and viewpoints of the actors engaged in reforming and radicalizing democracy through their critiques of established social-political orders and through collective efforts. Dialogues were held around issues of political structures, political practices, hierarchical social structures and anxieties related to diversity.

Case Studies: Case studies allowed deep investigations in a chosen case. The purpose was to look at certain facts that went against democratic wisdom; facts which were ‘inconvenient’ from the established viewpoint. The purpose was to complicate the conventional wisdom on a given issue. This pathway to understanding democracy leads us into the ‘puzzles’ of democracy rather than readymade answers.

Qualitative Assessments: Following the concept of Democracy Assessment developed by the International IDEA, this Study adopted the exercise to assess democracy in each country by a team of scholars from that country. For this purpose, a detailed framework was developed and experts asked to give an assessment within this framework on the basis of existing scholarship and sources. This assessment was to be an in-depth analysis of the journey of democracy in each country and the successes and limitations of this journey.

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