I came back from Bangladesh in late November 2018, a month before the country was going to head into its general election. I came back to India where the state assembly elections had been a bit of a reality check for the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party, which had lost in three of the Hindi heartland states. I came back to a strange sense of reassurance in the power of being a voter, in what I believe, continues to be the largest functioning democracy in the world. Perhaps this came from a place of privilege, having studied in Singapore and having lived in the US briefly, where the idea of democracy itself, seems largely different to what I then knew.
That is democracy, subject to interpretation. I had grown up believing that democracy was not only about voting. It also guaranteed me civil liberties – an idea central to who I am, as an active member of the body politic. Democracy gave me the right to vote, the right to question as well as the right to dissent. Over the years, a Singaporean friend who traced his roots back to Malaysia had said that Singapore was a “benevolent dictatorship and authoritarian pragmatism had guaranteed that everything worked out well, except the media,” and that “that was good enough.” In contrast, an entire faction of people I had met during my time in Bangladesh had reinforced the notion of Bangladesh being a “supposed democracy which had never really seen a free and fair election.”
These continue to be powerful ideas that guide us and give us the ability to evaluate what is, what could be and what should be. I understood this as I watched the US Presidential election results play out in November 2016. At a time when we confuse nationalism and patriotism, all too easily, it is perhaps important to take into perspective, who we are as citizens of democratic systems. Bangladesh goes to vote as I type this. As a run-up to the elections, things have been tense and strangely quiet for the last two months but today is, as friend says, “shanti purno poribesh.” Nothing has happened, yet. And still, and everyone seems to be walking around with an unnerving feeling that something might. Three days ago, 100 people were supposedly injured in pre-election clashes. There are, right now, thousands of armed personnel being deployed across the country to provide security as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has been in power since 2009, seeks a third term as leader.
From a subcontinental perspective, this whole 2018-19 period has been particularly important. In February 2018, Nepal held elections for its National Assembly, the upper house of the bicameral Federal Parliament. In August 2018, Pakistan chose Imran Khan in what was largely perceived as a government elected with the open support of the military, even though it was elected. News from Sri Lanka and Myanmar keeps pouring in with undertones of political turmoil and humanitarian crises throughout the year. And then, in between all of this, India waits to vote in 2019 general elections.
Freedom and how it impacts our identity as individuals and as a country is linked closely to how we understand democracy, right now, and elections are not really the only indicators of a democracy. In the historical continuity of our struggles, the subcontinental espousal of the original Greek idea of democracy and its central tenet of voting, is and remains, especially in these times, perhaps, a privilege. Navigating this civic space, the complex system of the rule by law, the power vested in elected representatives and the duties of individuals, is a more nuanced understanding. With each citizen interacting and engaging with ‘democracy’ in a different way, at different points in time, as a collective, we are often at the risk of thinking of democracy in reductionist terms. Is the agency of a single voter, then getting lost because voting directly or through freely elected representatives is often taken to be the only definition of democracy?
Democracy is anchored in the liberty of the people, the realization of the liberty as well as equality and sovereignty of the people. It is the rule of people expressing their sovereign will through their votes. To define democracy then, it becomes critical to identify and understand the concept of the nation-state. A nation-state is when a group of people with a shared cultural heritage and sovereign government overlap. This holds true in contexts like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. But contexts like India or even Singapore, where people not necessarily share similar identities like language, culture, etc. but are governed by the same self-sufficient central authority which performs functions of administration of law and order, are now identified as the state-nation.
In developing contexts like South Asia, sometimes democracy works and sometimes, it does not, in the delivery of what is promised. With progressively divided electorates and growing instances of restraint on the freedom of expression, democracy as a system, is somewhat under threat. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index records the worst decline in global democracy in years. The report says that as of February 2018, there were only 19 full democracies in the world and no, none of the countries in the subcontinent is a part of these.
That has consequences and costs that we will need to address as a body politic, even if we stay convinced that nothing will change. All too easily, people across the development spectrum from India and Bangladesh to Singapore, claim not to believe in the system and find no reason to vote, especially given that they do not think their vote makes a difference. Now, more than ever, we need to view private apathy in the context of public awareness – the need for definitive collective action to counter the all-too-easy blame-game we play with our governments.
At a personal level, today, democracy, has come to be about active participation and not mere observation and opinion, from my vantage points of comfort. As a citizen, I believe that there is some system and that it works, somehow. As a voter, I go into 2019 hoping that more than anything else, democracy will not fail me, and I will not fail it.
Neha Simlai is an international consultant working on sustainability and international development themes across South Asia. Views are personal.