Stoic leadership in changing democracies

By Saad Quasem

Leaders in South Asia love to play coy with the concept of democracy, by concocting versions of democracy tailored to respective shapes and sizes. The great partition of India, Pakistan and the subsequent independence of Bangladesh reflect on the differences which are rife. In the context of splitting of the sub continent, the present differences seem to rebel from the practice of being bound by the history of being borderless and united under colonial powers venturing into the melee of independence. 65 years after partition, differences have soared between the countries, but the culture of governance remains astute across the borders.

Decade after decade, the notion of democracy throughout India, Bangladesh and Pakistan has been lingering. Yet, election after election, the same dogmatic forces have been walking through the corridors of power, but interchanging chairs with each other. The same names, families and faces seem to be omnipresent in the elected offices which paint the lives of more than a billion people spread across the breadth and length of this sub continent. This has become the culture of governance.

Based on this practice, I beg to question, why are we in the Indian Sub-Continent infatuated by the same faces in politics?

The seemingly ubiquitous elements of politics often do disappear from national life, but that is usually orchestrated by the armed forces at the barrel of the gun. In the cases of Pakistan and Bangladesh, democracy vanishes from time to time, so the presence of an elected government may seem like a milestone. However, in the nascent democracies of South Asia, the reinstatement of the corrupt and inefficient seems to have become the norm. Does this consistent reinstatement of the same political forces imply that this process will continue?

This question is triggered by several key events in which echo the same concern. In Bangladesh, as we mull the concept of Sanglap between the Awami League and the BNP it is to solve the existing deadlocks of elections, caretaker government or non-caretaker government. Whatever the outcome is if there is a free and fair election, either the 18 party or the grand alliance will form the next government. It is next to impossible to see new players dominate the political grounds.  The possible return of Tareque Zia from self-imposed exile reinforces the trends. Albeit the scale, regional changes have taken place in Bangladesh as well. I use the example of Selena Hayat Ivy in the Narayanganj city corporation polls held in 2011.

While the Indian National Congress has been in power since 2004, many of the front liners in the government and the party have been in government since the time of Indira Gandhi and subsequently Rajiv. The corruption scandals, national insecurity, outcry over rape are only a few mere notices of mal-governance. Similarly sway, but the same faces return even in the opposition. Even if government does changes the politburo of the parties remain stalemate. It is interesting to note that regional changes are seen to be welcome. Mamata Banerjee took over West Bengal from the Marxist strong hands. Akhilesh Yadav became the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh last year defeating the towering Congress. There is a sense of revival and change, but the bottle spins towards the same direction all too often.

The victory of the house of Sharif in the recent general elections in Pakistan is a democratic triumph. Perhaps it is. However, there is a visible concern surrounding  the return of the Sharifs. Due process of democracy may have been a first, but the tables turn only to restore those responsible for the chronological decline of the state of Pakistan.

Imran Khan and his new age manifesto of creating equality and seizing corruption in 90 days had been seen as quite a contender to form the national government in the recent election. That failed royally, the Tehrik-E-Insaaf formed the federal government in the North West Frontier. Despite the possibility of a change in leadership, the possibility of non-legacy politicians seems to be non-existent.

Nothing seems to be an irony in politics, but there is something a bit odd as former archrivals Asif Zardari plays President and Nawaz Sharif crowns the premiership. They have both been in and out and back from their constituencies, not to mention countries as a result of international deals regarding their dirty laundry. Yet, they are installed by fan bases into power.

Gaps from Convergence

Why are we tangled in this web of stagnant political leadership? Not having an alternative is not a simple explanation. Drawing conclusions becomes further complicated by the fact that regional changes in leadership is quite pronounced.  One justification rationalizes that this is the conundrum of the post-colonial state.

Deriving out of a colonial past, where one was ruled by forces of the other, the people of these countries may have become dependent on the ruling class. Feudal ruling for centuries also has a part to play in settling an attitude of reliance. During the period when India’s modern political identity was being formed, the only tangible real life experience was that of the British and their rule.

The idea of the state that runs through the minds of Indians is that of the modern Indian state. The imperial Indian state was the benchmark to be reached.  Such an organized entity is preferred because it is the central command structure which takes care of the welfare of the poor and arbitrates between the quarreling tribes, minorities, untouchables and other conflicting zones. The Indian state also finds  itself as the comprador, the entity lying in between majority and global platform.

If the great Indian quest is to live up to the standards of British India and keep the state as constant, leadership may not be an entity one cares about.

Inequal Politics

Since, the state is seen as this comprador, perhaps one angle of looking at voting is apathetic. Does the desi voter, really not care?

The Anthropologist Mukulika Banerjee explains that despite all odds, the Indian voter is not apathetic. The same could apply to voters in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Politics does stem from rampant poverty and the indiscriminate rates of inequality any society can bear. Democracy for those living in subsistence acts as an agent of empowerment. The masses can stand up to everybody else. Inequality seems to mitigate at the time of elections as power is calibrated in a bottom up manner.  The rest of year(s) voters may seem to be unnoticed from the sphere of public life, but during the elections they are part of the collective effort of every state building effort.  Elections bring into equilibrium the rampant inequality that is so prevalent.

Banerjee further asserts the old saying that, he who goes to Lanka is bound to be the devil. Rajniti is seen as being dominated by mobs and the corrupt who suck on the blood of the voters. Yet, voters are alert and there tends to be no voter apathy. Banerjee explains it is because the domain of ‘politics’ is distinct from Rajniti. Politics denotes agitation, protests, movements, etc. Something is political when it involves negotiation with power or powerful actors and requires careful scrutiny. “The contradictions between the demonic and demotic lead people to reflect and debate rather than merely resign themselves to the situation.”

Lost History

Ashish Nandy argues that society has now become historically conscious. Historical consciousness cannot seriously take into account the principle of forgetfulness. It rejects the concept as irrational and futile, the world is seen as historically sensitive.  Human beings cannot afford to remember everything essential and non-essential memories are discarded by both individuals and societies.  Marx and Freud say forgetfulness is induced by society.  When it comes to voting, it seems as though the public erases memory of the misdoings the parties had conducted before. Perhaps, it is forgiveness, perhaps forgetfulness. At the end of the day as conscious and rational human beings, voters tend to bring back those who carry infamous baggage.

To fathom the sub-continental infatuation with political dynasties, another explanation by Nandy may be applied.  Nandy explains that history is practiced through historiography- the study and methodology of historical topics. These studies are presented in a manner in which the past is felt as the present, as if one is present at that point. The study of history, then implies that the human mind cannot fantasize itself as dead. The consistent reminder of Nehru-Indira-Rajiv is such a case in practice. Votes for Rahul Gandhi and his party colleagues depends on this notion. This immortalization is seen best as pictures of party stalwarts, be it Bangabandhu, Jinnah, Bhutto, Gandhi, Patel, Nehru is stamped on posters and pasted from wall to wall.  It is a reminder of the struggles of the past by national leaders. Those who ascribe to these images are seen as representatives of ghosts of the leaders, hence following the same ideals and practices that they did. History is thus not forgotten.

Political Society

These are reasons  why people vote. Why do people vote for the same leaders? Ramachandra Guha explains that India is a traditional society. Profession runs in the blood and is much better accepted, if the son takes charge of father’s responsibility. This is directly, linked to the fact that people tend to be attached to the same leadership in the bigger picture.

India has long been infatuated with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. The common phrase to describe Indira Gandhi’s years in power was “Indira is India.” She symbolized India and till this day, votes are cast in her name all over the country as votes are casted for her. Placing family events in national contexts has always been the way to conduct business for Indira. When Sanjay died, she remarkably mentioned so many come and go, yet life moves on. This implies the subtle embedding of dynasties into the political arena.

The three major dynasties of Sheikh Mujib, Nehru-Gandhi and the Bhuttos have their legacies enshrined in blood. Assassination of entire clans, except a member or two creates a spiritual aura amongst voters. Martyred leaders seem to hold a demi-Godly status. Respective leaders are larger than life and hold an immense amount of affection amongst supporters when alive. If slain, seems as if the successors bank on this abstract image of their sacrifice.  This has been seen time and again, both nationally and regionally across the three nations.

Stationary Movement

The historian Ramachandra Guha in his book Patriots and Partisans, cites the example of hordes of supporters waiting outside the house of Rahul Gandhi to greet him on his birthday albeit the heat of the 47 degree temperature. Party stalwarts greet Sajeeb Wazed Joy and Bilawal Bhutto in a similar manner and their power as heir apparent are used at election time.  They come to represent the family, the face of the party and then the nation.

When Nawaz Sharif took oath as Prime Minister, some of his chosen cabinet colleagues are people who have been on the frontline of national politics through thick and thin for decades. Some are new faces though.  Mixed with the old and new, there is movement, but it is stationary. This is almost always the case.

Whether it is lost history, or the plight of post-colonial states, the mull over political leadership seems to be constant. Hence, despite the constant nature of political forces remaining unmoved,  is there much of a point in pondering over why this is the order of leadership?

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 UK: Scotland License.