Much was made of the “democratic awakening” in Pakistan and Nepal last year. It was widely commented at the time that democracy in India’s neighbourhood presaged a challenge for us but would finally be in our interest.
How does the balance sheet read a year later? Clearly, the challenges remain constant but the expectations from democracy have been belied. These expectations were, to begin with, out of line with the historical record of not only Nepal and Pakistan but much of the South Asian periphery: As a result, they were bound to be dashed. These hopes were a creation of India’s elite commentators and writers, who assumed that democracy in these countries would be a faithful replica of what we possess.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
What was missed in these arguments was the difference between the form and substance of democracy. Mere successful conduct of elections does not turn a dictatorship into a democracy overnight. Unfortunately, most South Asian countries have done that and no more. The substance of democracy requires an institutional order that permits smooth conduct of political business on a continuing basis and one that fuels development. Once that happens, national attitudes and priorities can change and enable peace within the countries in question, and in South Asia at large.
Two examples are illustrative in this context. The crisis in Nepal and the venomous outburst of the ousted Maoists towards India, and the continuing travails of the Pakistani state. Both cases show that democracy has shallow roots in the two countries. In Nepal, India has been blamed for the mess after Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” quit. In Pakistan, hatred for India continues to be a principle of coherence for an otherwise dysfunctional nation. The truth is, both countries lack institutions that can set the rules of the game for all players to observe. Jockeying for power has led to poor outcomes in both cases.
As a result, it is best that India have a neutral attitude towards democracy in its neighbouring countries. We should be concerned with our national interest. In our periphery, this has three elements: ensuring that our neighbours do not support and harbour terrorists who can strike within our territory; ensuring the integrity of our borders; and, most importantly, ensuring?that?nations?not?friendly to us (such as China) do not have influence in our neighbourhood. These goals should be pursued with ruthless diligence. There is no room in this pursuit for sentimental follies.
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