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2 March 2015, Gateway House

An Indian democracy template for SAARC?

Indian foreign secretary S. Jaishankar’s visit to SAARC countries from March 1 is an opportunity to examine the political trajectories in the region. While democracy in some countries like Sri Lanka is on an upswing, in others, like Bangladesh, it is in decline. With China’s growing economic influence in South Asia, can Indian democracy be an effective counterpoint?

Director, Gateway House

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Less than a month after he was appointed foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar has been tasked with injecting momentum into India’s relations with its neighbours—to this end, he has embarked on a “SAARC Yatra” starting from Bhutan on March 1.

It is now nearly three-quarters of a century since most South Asian countries became democracies, and this provides a milestone to assess democracy in the region. It is also an important moment because the political trajectories of South Asian countries in the medium term will be determined by the balance they can achieve between the attractions of India’s democratic model to their people, and the lure of China’s economic largesse to promote infrastructure projects, to their governments.


India is the gold standard for democracy in South Asia. Regular and fair elections among the world’s largest electorate of 814 million (in May 2014) is itself an extraordinary exercise. While other countries in the region have elected governments too, they are still making the difficult transition to representative democracy.

Equally importantly, the outcome of the polls in India is not repeatedly rejected by its political parties, Neither do they boycott elections—as Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) did in January 2014, nor do they challenge the result—as Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf has done since April 2014 in Pakistan.  This gives India’s democratic processes and institutions significant credibility.

The Bharatiya Janata Party won the 2014 general election on the platforms of anti-corruption and anti-dynasty—and both issues have become the demand of electorates in India’s neighbouring countries as well. Last year’s electoral defeat of the Congress party in India was rooted in these issues—and was mirrored by the defeat of Sri Lanka’s unabashedly pro-China president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Opposition to dynasty is becoming an issue in Bangladesh too, which the incumbent Awami League should interpret as a rejection of undemocratic practices.


The West meanwhile is preoccupied with the multiple crises in West Asia, and its interest in South Asia—beyond the ISAF intervention in Afghanistan—is waning. This  opens up greater spaces for countries in the region to emulate the Indian model of democracy, rather than the North American.

The West’s dwindling interest is now deflected in allegations of human rights abuses. This censure is couched in threats of economic sanctions (by the U.S. against Sri Lanka in 2014); the blocking of loans from multilateral bodies (for example, the U.S. threatened to block IMF loans to Sri Lanka in 2009); and the withdrawal of trade concessions (as the European Union did with Bangladesh in 2013).

In this scenario, China has stepped in to fill the financial and infrastructural gaps in South Asia. Over the past decade, China has made major economic inroads into South Asian countries through trade, investment, and large-scale construction projects. From $6.5 billion in 2001, China’s trade with SAARC countries multiplied to $73.9 billion in 2012. Chinese investments in South Asia stand at over $30 billion, and China has provided loans worth $25 billion to the region.


China’s major projects in South Asia—including the development of the Gwadar Port in Pakistan, the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, and the Padma Multipurpose Bridge in Bangladesh—have enabled it to embed itself into these economies. Inevitably, its deepening economic relations with these countries have also translated into political influence in SAARC capitals.

This was evident at the SAARC Summit in Kathmandu in November 2014, when the three largest beneficiaries of China’s economic overtures in the region—Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives—called for China’s status to be changed from an observer member of the grouping to a full member.

Although India is the largest economy in South Asia, it cannot hope to match China’s economic allure to governments in the region. India must therefore become more creative in promoting people-to-people contacts by expanding educational and cultural exchanges.


With Sri Lanka’s growing indebtedness to China—public debt crossed 75% of GDP last year—President Maithripala Sirisena said in his election campaign that Chinese infrastructure projects will be reviewed. After his election, however, it is clear that they will not be cancelled. But his questioning did highlight that future governments will have to be more accountable to electorates for how showcase projects are funded. Sirisena’s first foreign destination in February was India—clearly in an effort to forge a more balanced relationship with both India and China.

While India-Sri Lanka relations are improving, various other recent developments in South Asia are more ambiguous in their implications for the India-China tussle for influence in South Asia.

Bangladesh concluded a successful election in 2014, which the incumbent, India-friendly, Awami League won. But the country is nearly paralysed by violent clashes since the new year between the supporters of the Awami League and the BNP—and this has set back its process of democratisation.

Nepal, geographically and politically caught between India and China, froze relations in the 1980s  with India in an effort to attract economic incentives from China. But China-funded infrastructure projects subsequently provoked charges of nepotism and corruption against the leaders of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). The party, which led the country’s 10-year-long anti-monarchy struggle, consequently lost the election in 2013. The successor government is working more closely with India to frame Nepal’s new Constitution. But, social and ethnic divisions are deep, and are being made more unbridgeable by the CPN(M) threatening to resume protest mode.

In the Maldives, India has criticised the recent arrest of former president Mohamed Nasheed—a self-proclaimed opponent of Chinese economic inroads into his country. During his presidency, Nasheed had awarded the contract to upgrade the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport in Malé to GMR, an Indian company. His successor, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, rescinded the contract in 2012 and instead awarded it to a Chinese firm. This vacillation exemplifies the tussle between India and China in the region.

But the country that has benefited the most from China’s attention and largesse is unequivocally Pakistan—it has received Chinese nuclear weapons and missile technologies, nuclear power plants, sophisticated weapons, and massive infrastructure projects, including the proposed $40 billion Pakistan-China Economic Corridor.

Chinese investment, however, is not a priority for the people of Pakistan, who continue to strive for more representative and efficient governance since the first military coup in the country in 1958. They have, so far, overthrown three pro-China and pro-West military dictators, but remain trapped in the machinations of the country’s armed forces. It is noteworthy that even the Pakistan Army now projects itself as pro-democracy,  while it calls the shots from behind the scenes.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already visited Bhutan and Nepal, and is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka and the Maldives in March. Apart from Bangladesh so far, Pakistan remains a major gap on his itinerary.  After Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visit in 1999, no Indian prime minister has visited Pakistan—and a proactive Modi is likely to be next.

While the presence of China in South Asian economies will continue to expand, democracy, as seen maturing in India, will remain the preoccupation of the people in the region.

Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations; She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast; and former Consul General in New York.

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