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South Asian politics: coming of age?

The history of dynastic politics in South Asia is as real as it is sordid. Nations that won their independence from the British as a consequence of a political struggle had soon after let the mantle of leadership pass on to familial hierarchies that have since kept power confined within those structures. The political dynasties of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh denote such history in clarion terms of what befell these unfortunate people.

There can be many an explanation of how and why, despite such illuminating political experience, they became as placid as they did while the powerful rewrote the rule-books in their favour. Equally, it may be easy to pin it on the people as we are wont to do but the manipulation of the environment by the power elites enabled them to frame what has permitted them a perpetual hold over decision-making mechanisms. It hasn’t changed since – except maybe now.

When the PPP under Asif Ali Zardari sat its most touted Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Reform to draw the 18thAmendment to the constitution it seemed intended to purge the malignant adhesions that had crept into it under military regimes. The president returned his powers to parliament and the committee handed those powers over to the provinces. As a consequence, the federation weakened while the provinces became stronger. Such correction in the power structure had its roots in a once widespread belief of a greatly dominant Punjab vis-a-vis the smaller provinces which Zardari was able to rectify, albeit in another time frame. Such sensitivity had outlived its relevance over the decades, smacking instead of garbed parochialism for ulterior ends.

What did the amendment mean in real terms? That parliament cannot be dissolved unless all organic provincial components formally concur. Inversely, if the provinces recommend, the centre must go – virtually transferring 58(2)(b) to the provincial domain. Governor’s rule, similarly, became an impossibility. The NFC award got revised.         When the 21st          Amendment later sought military courts to try terrorists, what went before the military courts had to be first recommended by the provincial governments. Essentially then, cases sensitive to the interests of political parties – such as those of Dr Asim and Uzair Baloch – were kept away from prying eyes.

If ever there can be a political coup in Pakistan, the 18th Amendment was it. In one master stroke, Zardari saved not only his bastion for ages, but his own and his family’s pre-eminence in a structure where Punjab and the military had reigned supreme. The government in the centre may not carry the totality of power as was historically the case, and a provincial power centre may of itself project sufficient power to ward off an overbearing centre, but what this amendment has unleashed are patently personal and familial interests which only perpetuate. Nothing, simply nothing, can touch the exclusive hold over power of those who sit at the top.

Unfortunately, this also means outright manipulation and exploitation of the politico-economic control that the province can now exercise – either in the interest of the people, or in the service of the familial elites. Pakistan’s problem for the moment is the latter. With many more opting from within the power cabals to join Zardari, the message only reinforces: they find benefit and profit in association.

Is there an escape from such inevitability? Tectonics will need to shift to force changes at the surface.

Let us cross the border in search of likely answers. Narendra Modi may have scaled the ladder in small, deliberate steps to gain a nomination to the BJP mantle, but once there has unleashed his own forces of change, far beyond any envisaged by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. Yet, in less than three years of his time at the helm, Indian polity has undergone inner convulsions throwing out what was stale and hierarchical and dynastic and imposing its own dynamics where people are now the agents of change. When the Congress can manage only six percent of the vote in UP, the heartland of the cow-belt, and Narendra Modi gets 43 percent in comparison, the die is cast.

It may be popular to view changes there in communal terms but that is not how it projects. UP has a 20 percent population of Muslims, of which 60 percent likely voters should make at least a 12 percent count. Congress was far below that mark, despite the assurance of its secular insularity. Which really means that even Muslims voted away from Congress. The people have begun to throw the stale out under a refreshed political thought under Modi’s brand. It is far wider in manifestation and deeper in how the political process in India is transforming itself.

View Narendra Modi’s style of politics. Unafraid, he is unconventional and undeterred as he takes on one policy offensive after another – challenging the stranglehold that status quo had managed to exercise on the system. Reforms, demonetisation, reaching out to the people, making technology bridge the divide and enabling a social transformation that brings about social equalisers in terms of slightly less and slightly more endowed in real worth. That is the change. He is using technology as a major plank to empower the people equally. He is bold and has known poverty and has no qualms in dirtying his hands with them. In a new political paradigm he has cast his own trail where others are serious laggards. “Apni dunya aap paida kar agar zindon mein hai”: Iqbal may have said it but Modi embodies it.

Pakistan may soon have its own moment of truth. The impending decision of the Supreme Court on Panama and thus the future of politics in Pakistan are tied to what becomes of its archaic politics.

Imran Khan, the only non-familial politician among the lot, has too been ‘normalised’ by the prevailing culture. This has caused him to lose his spark. He hopes to win by default, forsaking design and working to implement it. Many of his followers remain jaded. Politics like that of Modi may still be a distant dream.

That leaves Asif Ali Zardari to carry the electoral sweepstakes. Can providence be as magnanimous to him? Were it to happen, it will only delay the inevitable curtains to a continuing saga of the unimaginative politics of the elites. The Bhutto children seem different. Yet they must learn along a steep curve and keep wise to what entails the newer demands of responsible and responsive politics. Keeping an eye on India will help.

Email: shhzdchdhry@yahoo.com

Shahzad Chaudhry, "South Asian politics: coming of age?," The News. 2017-03-17.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political experience , Military courts , Political thought , Politicians , Terrorists , Poverty , Asif Ali Zardari , PM Modi , India , Pakistan , BJP