A year brought in with chaos at the U.S. Capitol, the symbol of American democracy, proved prophetic for several countries across the world, including those in South Asia. 2021 was a bad year for democracy in the region as politicians and political parties, even those who came to power through electoral politics, pursued policies that were increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of dissent.
The COVID-19 pandemic made it easier for South Asian governments to justify authoritarian measures, including discriminatory restrictions on civil liberties, excessive surveillance, and crackdowns on media. In New Delhi, police arrested over two dozen people for putting up posters questioning Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vaccine policy. Emboldened by pandemic-induced conflicts and economic crunches, the democratic recession in South Asia deepened as the year advanced.
2021 saw the Modi government and his state-level allies stoke sectarian tensions, harass critics and journalists, and hound non-profits. Hate speech and attacks against minorities and their places of worship also increased.
Even as the communal storm showed no signs of abating, a gale gathered momentum on the outskirts of New Delhi, where tens of thousands of farmers camped for months on end, demanding repeal of three contentious farm laws that paved the way for corporate takeover of India’s agricultural sector. As unacceptable as the implications of the laws was the undemocratic manner in which the Modi government had them passed; there was no discussion or debate preceding the enactment of the laws. Besides, the government’s use of force to quell the protests showed it had little time or interest in engaging in sincere dialogue with the farmers. While the BJP government did scrap the farm laws in December, perhaps with an eye on upcoming state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, the possibility of the government bringing back the farm laws cannot be ruled out.
Across the border in Pakistan, the Imran Khan government, which is often described as a hybrid regime given its civilian-military nature, was buffeted by multiple mass demonstrations in 2021. In addition to demonstrations led by the Pakistan Democratic Movement, a conglomerate of opposition political parties, Khan had to contend with far-right protesters belonging to a religious party, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP). His kowtowing to the religious right saw him lift the ban on the TLP, an unprincipled move that could cost Pakistan dearly in the coming months and years.
Further complicating the situation was mounting civil-military tensions. An unprecedented standoff between the prime minister and the military over the appointment of the new chief of the country’s premier intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence. Khan dragged his feet on appointing the military’s choice for the post. While the deadlock was resolved with Khan eventually appointing the army chief’s pick, Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed Anjum, as the new ISI chief, the rift between Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership was out in the open.
That Khan, who rose to power in 2018 riding on the support of the military, had lost the support of his patrons was evident from the results of elections to local bodies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This province, which was his party’s stronghold, rejected Khan and voted in favor of his opponent – Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a cleric who shares the same creed as the Afghan Taliban. Incidentally, Rehman happens to be an old favorite of Pakistan’s military establishment.
Tensions with the military, opposition protests, mainstreaming of far-right groups, and mismanagement of the economy have significantly lowered Khan’s chances at the next general elections. The ruling party, seeking a constituency of its own, has now set off to woo overseas Pakistanis with electronic voting.
However, the biggest blow to democracy in South Asia in 2021 was the return of the Taliban to power. Although democracy in Afghanistan under President Ashraf Ghani was deeply flawed, it was nonetheless an elected government. Afghanistan did have a constitution that gave its citizens some rights. These small steps on the road to democracy were reversed with the Taliban coming to power and enforcing a regressive interpretation of religious laws and revoking liberties Afghan women won through historic struggle and activism. As the Taliban struggle to run an aid-dependent country without aid, Afghans face hunger and starvation amid an economic crisis threatening the security situation in the region.
In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa family’s grip over power tightened; the number of Rajapaksas holding cabinet posts increased to five with Basil, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s youngest brother, being appointed finance minister in July. Gotabaya’s reliance on the military to administer the country grew remarkably in 2021. Task Forces headed and packed with military personnel made and implemented policies. In dealing with the pandemic, for instance, Gotabaya relied not on epidemiologists but on the military to shape policy.
The Gotabaya government’s crackdown on media and free speech continued, resulting in thousands going jobless and retiring to the highlands. “This is why there’s practically no coverage of the COVID-19 situation in Sri Lanka,” a journalist who spoke to The Diplomat on condition of anonymity said.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh marked 50 years of independence last year but is yet to establish a “substantive democracy.” Although democracy was restored in the 1990s, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s administration has been accused of rigging elections and using authoritarian tactics to crush dissent. Hasina has often dismissed criticism of her autocratic administration by highlighting Bangladesh’s growing economy. “If I can provide food, jobs, and health care, that is human rights,” she said in 2019.
In the Maldives, infighting in the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party could undermine its electoral chances in future elections, possibly paving the way for the return of the autocratic Abdulla Yameen. In Bhutan, a top general and two judges were arrested over an alleged plot to overthrow the country’s top judge and military man. As for Nepal, President Bidhya Devi Bhandari and former Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli dealt several blows to democracy by acted in utter disregard for constitutional norms, principles, and procedures. The ugly struggle for power among Nepali political parties in 2021 undermined public faith in democratic processes and institutions.