Future of democracy in South Asia

Posted in politics by jrahman on June 6, 2010

My friend Jalal has an exciting project: the future of democracy in South Asia.  He is writing on it in his blog (details here, click through the archives).  He has a four-step process: define baseline; detect first-order trends; identify certainties and uncertainties; and Construct scenarios.

He has done the baseline: what is the current state of democracy in South Asia?  His answer: there is strong support for democracy despite weak performance; plus a significant share of the population is open to alternatives, such as “strong leaders” or “military rule”, even while they support democracy.  He cites classic reference that argues that democracy is positively correlated with income levels, economic growth, and literacy.  Going forward, he is going to ‘organize these predictors to form a forecast, in which variables are prioritized by risk … and introduce relative certainties and uncertainties’.

As I said, fascinating stuff.  Do follow the project — I sure will.  Meanwhile, over the fold, I sketch some ideas myself.

Being a dismal ‘scientist’, I am going to explore the question — what is the future of democracy in South Asia — through a demand-supply analysis.

Where does the demand for democracy come from?  Go back one step, what drives the demand for formal states and state-centric politics?

Following Coase, North and various strands of Austrian and institutionalist schools, I believe formal political institutions like government and state is about minimising transaction costs.

A hunter-gatherer society where an individual meets no more than couple of dozen others in entire life, and where a stranger is likely to provide strong competition for food and mate (or possibly forcibly try to turn one into food and mate), transaction costs are minimum.  Meeting a stranger is likely not to result in a transaction whose cost needs to be mitigated.  Rather, it will probably end in violent death.  Highland Papua New Guinea tribes have a higher chance of being killed by strangers than denizens of Rio de Janeiro or Johannesburg.

A rural, agrarian society where the population is relatively immobile (both geographically and inter-generationally) needs socio-political institutions, but they need not be formal.  Religious injunctions and social norms — the caste system in South Asia — can do the trick.  As long as everyone knows the ‘right and proper scheme of things’, and there are well understood rules to govern deviations from those norms, a formal state is not actually needed.

States come into picture when we have mobility of people (migration), goods (trade) and ideas (innovation).  That’s when existing social norms need to be refined.  To formalise new norms, formal politics is needed.  To resolve disputes between strangers with different social customs, an arbitrator is needed.  And to enforce the arbitration, a monopoly of violence — that is, state — is needed.

And this demand for state will only intensify in the coming decades.  South Asia, like many other parts of the world, are rapidly urbanising.  Consider some numbers — Dhaka has gone from a city of a quarter million people at the time of partition to over 12 million now, Karachi has gone from half a million to about 12 million, Delhi from less than a million to over 15 million.  And this is just the megacities.  One might say that the real action is happening in the mofussils and village bazaars and junctions across the subcontinent.  Economic changes — I don’t use the word development, I have in mind what Marxists would call change in production relations — are reaping apart traditional society, and this is only going to accelerate.

That’s the theory.  And no one doubts that there is demand for state-centric politics in South Asia.  The question is, of course, about the demand for a democratic state.

This is where history comes in.  While there is a long history of states in South Asia, current South Asian states are quite young.  The state machines — even the basic machines such as law enforcement and revenue collection agencies, let alone service provisions or human development — are still being formed.  This contrasts with the bureaucratic traditions of, say, China, Korea or Egypt.  Because there is no history of bureaucratic state machinery, I suspect there will be little demand for such bureaucratic / imperial states.

However, there will probably be demand for a radical / revolutionary state.  As old and new inequities, real or perceived, aggravate — in many cases because of the existing democratic experiments inherited from the Raj — violent political order allegedly representing ethnic nationalism, sectarianism, theocratic fanaticism, ‘Maoism’, or some other ism, can curve out large geographic areas.

While there may well be demand for such radical / revolutionary states in large parts of South Asia, it’s hard to believe any single ideology will be able to garner enough support in the big cities.

This is the demand side.  What about the supply side?

It’s pretty clear that a bureaucratic / imperial state of the Chinese or Japanese type will not happen in South Asia because vehicles for such a state — large enough cadre-based party, ideology / governing myth — are not in supply. Perhaps the Indian National Congress, under a different leadership than MK Gandhi, would have been able to produce such a vehicle.  But that’s not what happened.  And given little demand for such a state, it’s unlikely that the future belongs to such undemocratic states.

But that doesn’t mean we will necessarily get a democratic order.

A democratic order needs, well, democrats.  It needs political parties based on some notion — class, identity, ideology — other than vehicle for individual glorification.  It needs pressure groups that form a civil society.  It needs individuals who can run a democratic order.

This is where things become murkier.

There is likely to be far larger supply of radical / revolutionary politicians — of whatever ideology — than democratic ones.  This is already evident in the rapidly changing countryside across the subcontinent.  The rise of political violence and violent crimes, often interlinked, points to this.

On the other hand, in the cities and towns, things may well be different.  It is far more difficult to create a ‘liberated zone’ in an urban area, even a small town, than in the countryside.  Given the reality of teeming multitudes (my favourite Rushdieism), the would-be radicals and revolutionaries in the city would probably gravitate towards a politics of coalition building and give-and-take.  And that’s the stuff of democracy.

Thus, we will probably see two different political orders developing.  The democratic experiment of the electoral variety that has been around for the past few generations will continue across the region.  But at the same time, there will be a number of mini-states governed by Taliban and Naxalites and ethnic liberation armies.

The question is, will this ‘two state’ system in the same landmass be sustainable?

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