Politics in a changing South Asia!


NUS-ISAS recently held their 13th annual international conference on South Asia themed 'Politics in a changing South Asia.'


The conference tackled a number of topics including national identity, role of government in managing and curating this identity as it is not a static concept. One speaker also viewed the ongoing political change across South Asia as part of a disruptive trend in politics. Not necessarily 'good' or 'bad', its more that certain political arrangements that held court in many South Asian countries find that the populations needs are not being met and alternate power structures - be in new ruling elite (away from English speaking, British educated ruling elite) taking over power or politicians using ethnic, religious and other factors to generate political change in their favor.


The highlight of the discussions were a panel discussion, pictured about where several academics shared their views on the state of political developments in their respective countries. #India, #Pakistan, #SriLanka, and #Bangladesh.


Are we witnessing the rise of majoritarianism, nationalism and populism in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh? Pakistan has similar undertones, but cannot be completely put into this group. In other words, the same narrative as in developed Western democracies, the erosion of liberal democratic norms and values within society and political and business elite. A key point made, which resonated, was that Western democracies, due to stronger (relative) institutions, civil society, academic institutions and a more free press can mount defense and over time reverse these recent changes - assuming that's what the people want. In South Asia, where democratic institutions are weaker, civil society very narrow, and press that is hyper partisan, the chances of a recovery seem bleaker.


The People want strongman leaders.

As elsewhere in the world, South Asian's too, it seems desires strongman leaders, action oriented, tough on 'fill in the blanks' (crime, terrorism, migrants, elite, other religions etc etc). Academic literature does provide evidence to justify that strongman leaders, if they pursue economic growth, can likely deliver at least in the short to medium term. So maybe this is the 'natural order' that South Asia, craving Strongman leaders to deliver on economic prosperity.


As usual, simple reasoning, cannot explain complex systems. It is likely that, a confluence of poor prior leadership, mismanagement, incompetence, corruption, and technology - social media (Recent elections battles in South Asia were waged off Whatsapp!) and polarization as well as change (fear of change)...all contribute to voters clamoring for saviors, be it cricket superstars, leaders who deliver, are ruthless, etc etc. After all,


“People have a tendency to blame politicians when things don't work, but as I always tell people, you get the politicians you deserve. And if you don't vote and you don't pay attention, you'll get policies that don't reflect your interest.” Barack Obama
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