Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

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  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Indian Democracy: A Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

Back in the 1980s I did not believe that India was a real democracy. I remember explaining to a family friend who is Indian that no country that has been ruled by a single family for 90 percent of the time since independence can be democratic. It was really an elected monarchy. She mentioned the Kennedy family (and later she could have mentioned the Bushes as well). I simply pointed out that the Kennedys had held the presidency for a total of less than three years. When one adds the widespread corruption in Indian politics and the widespread sectarian pogroms that broke out in 1947, in 1984, and in 2002 one can make a very good case that India is not really a democracy by Western standards. But is this fair to India? After all, India is not located either culturally or geographically in the West but in South Asia. So let's examine what the standards for governance are in the region.

The next largest country, Pakistan, has been ruled by military rulers for most of its existence as an independent country. Its first democratic election since independence was in December 1970 and led to a military occupation of East Pakistan when the Bengali Awami League party won more seats than Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, which was the big winner in West Pakistan. India intervened to end the stream of refugees into West Bengal and the Third Indo-Pakistani War of December 1971 resulted. This brought about the dismemberment of Pakistan with independence for Bangladesh as East Pakistan became.  The leader of the Awami League, Sheik Mujib-ur-Rehman, became the new ruler of Bangladesh. But he was later killed in a military coup that ended democracy.

After the Pakistani defeat General Yahya Khan, the leader of Pakistan, resigned and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became Pakistan's first civilian leader since 1958. After starting the effort to acquire nuclear weapons, Bhutto was overthrown after less than six years in power by a coup in August 1977 and hanged by the man who overthrew him, Zia ul-Haq. The military remained in power for another decade until ul-Haq's death in 1988. This resulted in a return of civilian rule for a decade. Bhutto's daughter Benazir was elected president. She ruled for a couple of years until deposed by the military and forced into exile. She was replaced by Nawaz Sharif, a conservative politician from a large landlord family. Sharif was then replaced in a coup by Pervez Musharraf in 1999. Even under civilian rule the civilian president did not have control over the country's nuclear weapons and the Interservices Intelligence (ISI) continued to operate as a law on to itself in Kashmir and throughout Pakistan. When Benazir Bhutto returned from exile in December 2007 she was assassinated in an attack on her motorcade, which may have had some assistance from the military or intelligence services. In short, Pakistan during its sixty-five years of independence has functioned more like Argentina, Brazil or most other South American countries before the mid-1980s with alternating periods of civilian and military rule than like a real democracy.

Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) gained independence in  1948 as a dominion. In 1972 it changed its name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka. Three-quarters of the country's population is made up of the largest ethnic group, the Sinhalese, followed by Sri Lankan Tamils with eleven percent and Moors with nine percent and Indian Tamils making up most of the remainder. In the 1970s Sri Lanka became an ethnic democracy with the Sinhalese dominating the government at the expense of the smaller Tamil groups. Sinhala was made the sole official language. This ended up alienating the Tamils who began an insurgency in 1983 that listed until 2009. The insurgency was finally put down by the Sri Lankan army with large massacres in which some 40,000 Tamil civilians perished in 2009. The Tamil Tigers or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the main insurgent group, was a ruthless terrorist organization that forcibly wiped out its rival competitors and then waged a terrorist campaign for two decades against the Sri Lankan government, Sinhalese and Tamil civilians, Indian peacekeeping troops, and assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress leader and former prime minister, in May 1991 as he was campaigning before the election.

Of the countries of the Indian subcontinent, only India has been democratic throughout its entire history (with the exception of the two year emergency from 1975 to 1977). Bangladesh is an unstable country that has suffered several military coups. Nepal, the Himalayan kingdom that serves as a buffer state between India and China, has traditionally been a monarchy, although in recent decades it has become a constitutional monarchy and then a republic. On June 1, 2001 the successor to the throne, Crown Prince Dipendra murdered his parents and most of the rest of his family. The late king was succeeded by his brother who after taking power declared martial law in order to suppress a Maoist insurgency. Finally in 2007-08 the country was converted into a republic. 

So by regional standards India, with all of its faults, certainly is a democracy. The nepotism and corruption that are common in India are also common in Ireland, although not to the same extent. And Ireland does not have the excuse that these are the regional norm. As a result Washington and most of the West is willing to cut New Delhi some slack in regard to its democratic imperfections.

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