Arab spring in South Asia? - Aijaz Zaka Syed - Sunday, March 06, 2011

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The Arab spring continues to wow the world. If it has the corrupt and powerful everywhere terrified out of their wits, it also has revived the long repressed spirit of the oppressed, far beyond the greater Middle East.

Until the beginning of this year, few in the distant lands of America, India, China and the Far East would have heard of Hosni Mubarak or confidently pick out Tunis on the world map. All that has changed. Forever. The Tunisian-Egyptian burst of hope has not just given birth to a magical season of change across the Arab world, it’s inspiring imitation elsewhere.

All this must come as a wake-up call to those asleep at the wheel everywhere. Apparently, what happens and goes around the other side of the globe comes around sooner or later to catch up with your reality wherever you are. So at the height of the Tahrir Square excitement, it was curiously uplifting to hear a fellow Indian demand an “Arab revolution in India” on the BBC Hindi’s India Bol (Speak up India) program. At first it sounded rather absurd. An Egypt-style people’s revolt in India? Nah!

After all, India is not a rotting, decaying Arab police state where leaders come to stay and rule forever. We are a vibrant and thriving democracy – the world’s largest and most colourful. Comparisons with the Middle East are therefore odious. But are they really?

The young and restless who drove Ben Ali and Mubarak out of their once impregnable fortresses were not just protesting their long years of absolute power. Those demonstrations were also a call to arms against the corruption and nepotism, against injustice and inequality, and against the abuse of power and misrule that characterised the so-called Arab republics all these years. They were a protest against incompetence, red tape and poverty and against all the missed opportunities that have stultified and sapped the youth and stolen their promise and hope. Sounds familiar?

India is an amazing democracy of which we are justifiably proud. But the ills plaguing stagnant Arab societies have also been gnawing at the vitals of Indian society for so long that we do not even pay attention to them anymore. In fact, this is not just confined to India. It’s the same story all over South Asia.

From India and Pakistan to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, politics is the same all over the subcontinent. Widespread and institutionalised plundering of state resources by politicians is the order of the day. While the rich get richer and our mediocre politicians turn billionaires in office in no time, for ordinary people it’s a daily grind, a constant battle to survive the crushing poverty. Dynastic politics is another feature that is common between the Arab republics and South Asia.

Take a look. There are so many Gamal Mubaraks around. In fact, dynastic succession has become so de rigueur in South Asian politics that no eyebrows are raised when the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has to jump through hoops to accommodate the whims and fancies of every son and daughter of ally and Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi.

Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are the only smiling – and not so bad – faces of the dynastic politics. And yes Rahul is yet to take charge. India has seen worse – in Rahul’s uncle Sanjay Gandhi. In fact, the son rises in every political party in the subcontinent and almost every politician in this Turkish bath is without a stitch on.

Like much of the Arab world, criminal mismanagement of resources, red tape and crony capitalism – or socialism in some cases – have ensured that even as we trumpet our fabled economic progress into the 21st century, much of our population survives on less than $2 dollar a day.

Last year, the Indians – and the world – were shocked when a UN global poverty index devised by the Oxford University discovered there are more poor people in eight Indian states than in the 26 nations of sub-Saharan Africa put together. India ranked 63rd, just after Togo, and before Haiti.

A staggering 410 million people, far more than the population of the United States, in the country seen as one of the two emerging superpowers live in extreme poverty. The economic liberalisation of the 1990s and selective prosperity that followed has only deepened the socio-economic inequalities. No wonder India is home to a violent Marxist insurgency, biggest in the world, that The New York Times some time back described as being a bigger threat to India’s security than international terrorism.

Things are a little different in the rest of South Asia. All-pervasive corruption, extreme economic inequalities, a breakdown of institutions and denial of basics like food, water, healthcare and education etc., have been the bane of the entire region.

While India has been rocked by some of the biggest corruption scandals in history in the past few years, under Mr Clean Dr Singh of course, with Mr Ten Per cent taking over the reins of the Islamic Republic next door, the culture of sleaze has acquired a new meaning and taken to a new level altogether.

So there’s every possibility and compelling need for an Arab spring in South Asia. Especially when like those marching on the Arab street, India and Pakistan are home to a large young population that is getting increasingly impatient for change. The young are not just restless; they are also informed and know their rights. And they know how to use the power of new technology and new social tools to get what they want. Having seen the Net magic in action in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, it wouldn’t be long before they decide to take charge of their destiny. Especially, when their leaders are so incompetent and clueless.

Given the average age of politicians in our part of the world, is it any wonder they are so hopelessly out of touch with the reality of the 21st century and its young? If anyone watched Manmohan Singh’s recent press conference on national TV would know what I am talking about. I felt almost sorry for Dr Singh as he pathetically pottered his way around the carefully chosen questions posed by carefully chosen journalists. Here’s a man who is not just resting on his laurels but he has gone to sleep on them.

And it’s not just the prime minister. Every political party on the left, right, and centre boasts leaders who belong in retirement homes. It’s even worse when it comes to regional players. Most political parties have ended up as personal fiefdoms of their leaders. Power is family business and remains in the family.

Karunanidhi, the permanently wheelchair-bound Tamil Nadu CM, cannot move an inch without the help of his family and aides but cling on he must to his chair. Surely, a nation of a billion plus people deserves better. So does Pakistan and so do other nations in the region. This is why, given the bankruptcy of politics in the region, don’t be surprised if we see an Arab spring in South Asia soon. Possibilities for a brave new world are endless.

The writer is based in Dubai and has written extensively on the Middle East and South Asia. Email: aijaz.syed@hotmail. com

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