Politics Of Authoritarianism In South Asia

Politics Of Authoritarianism In South Asia
This is a rather chaotic week for South Asian politics. Only on Friday was India’s opposition leader Rahul Gandhi expelled from parliament over a defamation case. Gandhi’s supposed crime was that about two years earlier he had implied that the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a ‘thief.’ Gandhi has received a two-year sentence, implying that he can no longer serve in the Lok Sabha. This rather fast ruling shows how adamant Modi has been to silence opposition and weaken democracy. Was it necessary? Modi had been faring quite well in the opinion polls anyways. According to the latest Indian election predictions, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is all set to win 298 out of a total of 545 seats in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Modi’s targeting of the BBC and opposition shows that authoritarian leaders can exert any means to make sure that their grip on power is tightened and faces no threat whatsoever.

On the other side of the border, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) announced that the Assembly Elections in two of the four provinces of Pakistan would be delayed from 30 April to 8 October, as the Sharif government refused to provide the required funds, citing financial limitations. It was in January that Khan’s Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf (PTI) had dissolved the Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembles to compel the federal government to call snap elections. The constitution demands that elections be held within 90 days after the dissolution of assemblies, irrespective of a lack of financial resources or the prevailing political climate.

This ruling followed days of protest and a violent stand-off between Khan’s supporters and the police who had gone to arrest him on corruption charges.

The charges against Khan are paradoxical. One of the allegations accuses Khan of misusing his office to sell state gifts and concealing assets as the country’s premier from 2018 to 2022. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) levied the charges against Khan in an-anti graft court, which issued the warrant last week when Khan failed to show up in the court despite repeated summons. As the government made the 446-page document concerning the Toshakaha recipients public earlier this week, the allegations against Khan – and importantly, their opportune timing, as Khan demands a general election – looked like nothing more than an amateur act of political engineering.

Toshakahana, falling under the Cabinet Division, is a department that stores highly valuable gifts given to the governing elite, as these gifts are deemed state property. As per Toshakhana regulations, it is mandatory that gifts of a particular value are deposited, and recipients are then allowed to buy the gifts upon payment of a certain fraction of the price. Among the beneficiaries unveiled by the report are names like military dictator Pervez Musharaf, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, President Zardari, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, President Arif Alvi and Prime Minister Imran Khan, many of whom either paid nothing or miniscule sums to keep gifts ranging from a Mercedes Benz to expensive ties and watches. This is not surprising, as the extent of grand and petty corruption prevalent in the country is apparent from the fact that The Transparency International in 2021 ranked Pakistan 140th out of 180 ‘least corrupt countries’ on its Corruption Perceptions Index and gave it a score of 27 out of a total of 100.

Do these ‘corruption’ charges against Khan stand considering the scale of corruption in the country revealed in the aftermath of the Panama Papers? The papers made public by The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), sourced from the law firm Mossack Fonseca, included details of eight offshore companies linked to the family of Nawaz Sharif, the then Prime Minister of the country. The detailed reports revealed that Sharif’s three children headed companies owning four luxury flats in London’s Park Lane; the Panamagate scandal resulted in the Supreme Court of Pakistan ousting Nawaz Sharif from office and leading to his 10-year disqualification. However, Nawaz Sharif and family weren’t the only Pakistanis named by the Panama Papers; other notable names included many in the political, business, bureaucratic, judicial and military establishment.

In a country where corruption is rife, campaigns to ‘clean up corruption’ and ‘make Pakistan pure’ again do nothing but advance the interests of the governing elite and are part of a carefully designed revenge agenda by those in power against those that seek to threaten their reins on power. Imran Khan is no stranger to this strategy; he himself used state organs like the Federal Investigation Agency and National Accountability Bureau to stifle the opposition when in power and ran a campaign of accountability and corruption eradication when his own ranks and files were made by people with many corruption cases against them. The problem with politics of revenge is that it often backfires when the tables turn.

It is important to note that this writer is rather very vary of the populist, misogynistic, inefficient and otherising politics of Imran Khan. However, journalistic objectivity demands to call out and condemn the manner in which democracy has been side-lined in the country. According to a survey titled Public Pulse Report by Gallup Pakistan, published earlier this month, in a survey of 2,000 respondents, Imran Khan received a positive rating from 61% of the population, while 37% rated him negatively. Conversely, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif was rated negatively by 65% of Pakistanis, while 32% saw him in good light. The survey also elucidated that the majority of the respondents, i.e. 62% blamed the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM)/PML-N for the country’s current economic woes, while only 38% blamed the previous PTI government. While the exact figures may be debatable owing to a small sample size and issues of question framing; however, they reveal something important. Imran Khan’s popularity is growing among the masses, and it is the responsibility of the state’s institutions to ensure that the democratic will of the people is carried out.

Be it Russia, where the opposition leader Navalny – who serves as perhaps the greatest internal threat to the Putin government when out – has been arrested and imprisoned since 2021, after being treated in Germany, following a suspected Putin-ordered poisoning, or Erdogan’s Turkey where the Turkish Parliament has passed a law to criminalise fake news on social media, intended to silence one of Turkey’s only platforms for free expression ahead of 2023 elections – all bear testament to the kind of politics of suppression, censorship and repression characteristic of authoritarian governments. Authoritarianism slowly engulfs the very institutions of democracy, rejects political pluralism, and works towards the concentration and centralization of power in the hands of the few. It is the responsibility of the people to recognize when democracy is under threat and to demand the state’s institutions to carry out the will of the people, not the wishes of those few in the corridors of power. Both the Indian and Pakistani people should voice their protests against the suppression of Imran Khan and Rahul Gandhi respectively, because their countries’ survival and progress are inextricably linked to the strength of democratic institutions, obedience to the rule of law, and adherence of political actors to constitutional constraints.

In the words of Eugene Victor Debs, “in every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the People.”

The writer is a BSc Philosophy, Politics and Economics student at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She can be contacted at: maheenrasul@gmail.com.