RECENTLY, Salahuddin Ahmed, a well-known legal eagle of Pakistan, tweeted about feeling gloomy. And he wasn’t referring to inflation or the floods. His concern was the state of democracy in our nook. He wrote that if GHQ and the government succeeded in beating down Imran Khan, it would mean normalising the omnipotence of the establishment. And added that if Khan won, it may usher in one-party rule. Both options, he felt, were not all that hopeful.
In the age of social media, where Twitter is the preferred haunt and skimming through tweets an hourly diet, this was a tweet hard to forget. Indeed, the responses he got means others found it provocative too.
But I wonder if there is any other alternative to the establishment-dominated system except for a single-party one. Not because of the worldwide trend of weakening democratic trends and the rise of populists but because of what is happening in our own neighbourhood. Both India and Bangladesh, it seems, are en route to becoming single-party states, though of course in their own ways.
In India, the BJP seems to be growing from strength to strength. Five years after its 2014 win, when it was deemed to not have managed the economy very well, it succeeded in improving its electoral performance in the next election. This was not simply about the number of seats but also winning in states not seen as its traditional strongholds.
Is there any other alternative to the establishment-dominated system except for a single-party one?
In Bangladesh, on the other hand, Hasina Wajid of the Awami League has been the prime minister since 2009; the party’s main rival, the BNP, led by Khaleda Zia who was imprisoned on corruption charges, seems to be in no position to return to power. A BBC article from 2021 began with the following lines: “Bangladesh is held up by many as a model of development, but as it marks 50 years of independence critics say it risks becoming a one-party state intolerant of dissent, threatening the democratic principles on which it was founded.”
Obviously, the details provide many differences. In India, even the earlier domination of the Congress could be seen as a single-party system. However, this was soon challenged by the rise of regional forces, and even now, regional parties remain strong. However, few would deny that at the national level, the BJP’s primacy appears uncontested as the Congress has not managed to improve its electoral performance.
Free speech and a free press are under attack in the entire region. Arrests and harassment of activists and journalists is perhaps common to all three countries. The more democratic dispensations in India and Bangladesh (compared to Pakistan) have not led to more democratic structures such as freedom of speech.
As in Pakistan, India too is home to multiple news channels and newspapers but these are now mostly owned and controlled by a business elite closely aligned to the ruling party; legacy media appears to be a thing of the past. And this change in ownership is said to have led to relative acquiescence.
In Bangladesh, too, press freedom has been under attack. But unlike Pakistan, both India and Bangladesh are doing well economically, going from strength to strength.
It does lead to many questions. What is causing this drift towards authoritarianism in the three countries? Is it simply the global trend of strong leaders which is at work in our part of the world? Or is it due to the structure of our state which retains many of the laws and frameworks put in place by the colonial authorities? The sedition law is simply one example. Put in place by the British, it is still being used in India and Pakistan. Even the manner in which all three states try to control the noise on social media is all too familiar.
Perhaps Pakistan differs from the other two only in terms of the many parties not just competing in elections but also the lack of clarity in terms of who may win nationally. And this to a certain degree is due to the establishment. The interference in recent years led, to some extent, to the rise of the PTI and its eventual victory in 2018. In the absence of this, the PML-N may as well have won and formed its second consecutive government. One can only conjecture if this would have led to the beginning of one-party domination or not. By now, no one is sure of how well the PML-N will be able to do, come next election.
On the other hand, the PTI, thanks to its ouster, is gaining popularity and there are concerns, as voiced by Salahuddin Ahmed, that its return to power would mean a faster journey to single-party domination. Of course, this is based on the assumption that the PTI is able to return to power against the wishes of the establishment; if the assumption about the establishment’s views is correct, it would be no mean feat and may signal a change in the civil-military balance in Pakistani politics. After all, to date no party has been able to win elections without the support or at least the silence of the powers that be.
However, what else does it imply? That if Pakistan still enjoys a multiparty dispensation, this is dependent on the uneven civil-military balance continuing? Though of course it needs to be pointed out that the present multiparty system does not deliver any better on democratic credentials, such as media freedom or civil liberties.
Perhaps while we dwell on these questions, we could also focus on what has allowed India and Bangladesh to do better economically. Despite its history of military interventions and polarised politics between two parties, Bangladesh has managed to ensure sustainable economic growth. Did the sustainable economic growth and its consolidation pave the way for single-party domination, or did the former lead to authoritarian political stability? Or are the two not linked to each other? There is no end to the questions.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2022