2024 will be election year in India, Pak, SL, B'desh. Can we still hope?

Crucial elections are due in the South Asian countries in the new year, but will they help restore functional democracies is the question

Representative image (photo: National Herald archives)
Representative image (photo: National Herald archives)

Bharat Dogra

There is more than one reason why elections in the South Asian countries due in 2024 are keenly awaited. They will not only shape the political future of these countries in the foreseeable future, but also determine their relations with neighbours and re-define the relationship between the state and the people.

In all the three largest countries in the region, namely India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, relations between the ruling regimes and the opposition have deteriorated rapidly in recent years.

In Pakistan and Bangladesh, the relationship is even more acrimonious and toxic than in India; even in the relatively more mature democracy of India, where the opposition and the ruling parties had a reasonably functional relationship until 2014, they now seem engaged in virtual mortal combat, with space for civil discussions and negotiations shrinking a little too fast.

All these countries are beset by equally grim and serious problems of poverty, hunger, migration, unemployment, climate change, growing inequality, and insurrections, among others. These problems require greater cooperation and coordination among political parties, but the scope for dialogue is closing very quickly.

All the South Asian countries face threats to their federal structure, and the endless confrontation among political parties in these countries are diverting attention of people and policy makers from the far more real problems facing them.

In all these countries, the poorest people at the bottom, roughly half or more of the population, face increasing threats to livelihood and subsistence aggravated by natural disasters and adverse weather-related problems in times of climate change.

In Pakistan, the situation is critical after the devastating floods. The failure of government agencies to respond adequately owing to a mounting financial crisis has made the plight of people more miserable.

Pakistan has been the recipient of considerable aid from the USA, Saudi Arabia, other oil-rich Gulf countries, China, and also from international institutions; yet it still faces an economic crisis and a debt crisis that seem to be spinning out of control. This should work as a warning to other countries in the region so that they do not get caught in a debt-trap and ignore self-reliance while importing unnecessary things.

Bangladesh is possibly the most vulnerable of the three countries to climate change and related disasters. It does have some important development successes to its credit, but on the whole, its economic and political stability remains precarious at best.

India’s impressive statistics on paper, on GDP growth and multi-dimensional poverty reduction, should not take away from the fact that wealth and income disparities are rising and growing inequality is giving rise to crime and social tensions that may upset the applecart.

Even a much smaller country like Sri Lanka, which had everything going for it and once had good human development indicators, failed to arrest a slide in the wake of its terrible civil strife, and faces a snowballing economic crisis. In the middle of increasing inflation and a foreign exchange emergency, Sri Lankans have been facing mounting difficulties in meeting even basic needs.

India's northern neighbour Nepal, too, has witnessed several smaller development success stories, but years of civil strife and political instability in the Himalayan nation have weakened its capabilities to cope with environmental vulnerabilities and climate change.

People of Afghanistan, however, may have suffered the most in recent years from a mix of war and strife, denial of human rights and gender rights, as well as adverse weather conditions and disasters; while the Taliban has banned girls from studying beyond class six, Pakistan has added to the people’s misery by forcing several hundred thousand Afghan refugees to return to Afghanistan in very difficult conditions.

Inter-faith harmony in these South Asian countries has taken a hit in recent years, and the resultant turmoil has not helped overcome the odds. Women and the minorities have borne the brunt of violence and state-sponsored terrorism. It is time for them to end avoidable internal and external hostilities and restore peace and harmony, without which the battle to reduce poverty and ecological ruin can be all but lost.

Democracy in all these countries has been imperfect and fragile. Democracy cannot function in an environment of extreme hostility and distrust. It is the job of the governments in these countries to deliver, and the responsibility of the people and the opposition to cooperate and collaborate. Both have the responsibility of creating conditions under which such cooperation and collaboration can take place.

Will 2024 see a return to functional democracies in these countries? One certainly hopes so, because democratic decision-making alone can address the grave and growing problems. That alone can ensure that the welfare of the poorest, the weakest and the most vulnerable gets the highest priority.

It has been a grim year for the region in 2023. The new year promises to keep hope alive until at least the opportunity is not squandered again.

(The writer is honorary convenor, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man over Machine, Planet in Peril, and A Day in 2071)

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