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Journal of Democracy 13.1 (2002) 37

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South Asia Faces The Future

The following section of five essays on democracy in South Asia was planned in the summer of 2001. Since then, world events have focused attention on this region in a way that would have been inconceivable before September 11. South Asia is home to 1.3 billion people--more than a fifth of all human beings on this planet--and has a history of democratic ups and downs that stretches back a half-century to the end of British rule. We asked the authors of these five essays--two on India and one each on Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka--to review democracy's current status and future prospects in each country.

The picture that emerges is a study in chiaroscuro. India, by far the biggest country in the region, provides the most positive news. Both Sumit Ganguly and Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph agree that India's prospects are bright. While threats to democracy persist, India seems to have adapted well to the political challenges of the last decade and appears to be on track for improved governance and a more broad-based political system.

By contrast, the history of independent Pakistan, according to Aqil Shah, reveals a depressing pattern of dysfunctional elected civilian governments punctuated by military coups like the one engineered by Pervez Musharraf in October 1999. Finding his country suddenly thrust into the hot zone of the U.S.-led antiterrorist struggle, Musharraf has nimbly positioned himself, in Shah's view, to bolster his own continued rule rather than achieve a genuine return to democracy.

In Bangladesh, as Howard B. Schaffer explains, the biggest political problem is the overheated partisanship that taints relations between the two main parties and their respective leaders. Nonetheless, Bangladesh remains a stable, civilian-led parliamentary regime with free and vigorously (some would say too vigorously) contested elections. These, along with a relative lack of Islamic extremist politics, make it a happy rarity among majority-Muslim states today.

The region's most tragic case is the island republic of Sri Lanka. Though technically an established democracy, it is, Neil DeVotta reports, a land where the key practices and institutions of constitutional liberalism have been turned into ugly caricatures of themselves by a decades-old civil war. The causes of this war are traceable both to irresponsible leadership and to institutions ill-suited to the island's unique circumstances. If there is any silver lining in this brutal ethnic conflict, it might be the object lesson that it offers to neighboring India--a land not without serious internal cleavages of its own--about the dangers of playing on intercommunal rivalries for short-term political gain.


--The Editors, 11 December 2001



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