Seminar report – 23 July 2014, ‘How secure is democracy in the Subcontinent?’

London’s prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies was the setting for The Democracy Forum’s third conference of the year on Wednesday July 23, which asked the pertinent question: ‘How secure is democracy in the Subcontinent?’

The seminar, attended by 45 guests, was chaired by Rita Payne, President of the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association, and on the panel were Professor Pritam Singh from the Department of Accounting, Finance and Economics at Oxford Brookes University; Dr Kiran Hassan, South Asia Researcher at the International Institute of Strategic Studies; Adnan Rafiq of St Antony’s College, University of Oxford; and Babar Ayaz, journalist and author of What’s Wrong With Pakistan?

After a few words of welcome from The Democracy Forum’s Chair Sir Peter Luff, who remarked on the timely nature of this seminar, Rita Payne offered a brief overview of current events in the Subcontinent before introducing the first speaker. In exploring the theme ‘Political economy of centralisation, decentralisation and democracy in India’, Professor Singh examined three key stages in India’s development – pre-1947, post-1947 up to 1991; and post-1991 – considering amongst other matters the increasing competition with neighbours such as China and Western global partners, poverty in India, and class-related and nationalist conflicts. He concluded that despite having the necessary infrastructures in place to sustain it, India must continue to work at democracy. Dr Kiran Hasan chose as her theme ‘Pakistan’s vulnerable democratic transition – challenges and opportunities’, and observed that Nawaz Sharif’s record after one year back in power raises questions about whether he can deliver on his promises.

Adnan Rafiq addressed the question of ‘Diffusion of power: understanding change and persistence in Pakistan’, offering a structural analysis of Pakistan’s society, looking at change through a sociological lens and comparing the country’s current democratic transition with the last one. As long as all the various segments of Pakistani society are entrusted with the continuation of the democratic process, said Rafiq, there is hope for democracy in the country. For Babar Ayaz, Pakistan’s democracy has remained quite weak, with many forces who want to destabilise the political establishment. ‘How ailing or failing is the Pakistan state?’ he asked, looking at various institutions and aspects of the country, and labelling them ‘good’, ‘poor’ or ‘average’. Ayaz blamed Pakistan’s tenuous democracy on the weak rationale of the Two Nation Theory. Pakistan’s middle classes and big business are now leading the political narrative, claimed Ayaz, but the military’s institutional supremacy is a real threat to democracy.

During the Q & A session that followed, the many well-informed members of the audience raised a wide range of questions and comments, including what Sharif could do to benefit Pakistan, the legitimacy of India’s new government, the nature of Pakistan’s identity and media freedom in the Subcontinent. Rita Payne and the speakers rounded off with a few words on the need for stability and how democracy is always a journey, before Sir Peter Luff thanked both speakers and audience for a lively and worthwhile debate.