Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Subcontinent: Sri Lanka and Nepal Both Complete Democratic Elections

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Subcontinent: Sri Lanka and Nepal Both Complete Democratic Elections

Article excerpt

The Subcontinent: Sri Lanka and Nepal Both Complete Democratic Elections

By M. M. Ali

The Asian subcontinent is not only India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It also includes the smaller countries of Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim which have equally rich histories that go back more than 3,000 years and a combined population of nearly 40 million people. Although they, too, confront formidable geopolitical and economic challenges, all possess the potential to become models for sustainable, freemarket democracies.

Unfortunately, many of their efforts to date have been directed toward surviving with dignity in proximity to a very large neighbor that has not always been friendly. To understand the genesis of the current political discomfort in the subcontinent, one needs to understand the basic thinking of the majority in the area.

The most revered ancient Hindu theory of statecraft, Matsayana ("it is in the nature of things that the bigger fish swallow the smaller ones"), appears to guide the rulers in New Delhi. Further, the teachings of the Hindu political philosopher Kautiliya, who is likened to Niccolo Machiavelli, remain a point of reference for many contemporary Indian political leaders. To fully comprehend the fundamental ethos of the Hindu world, one needs to go into the historical records to learn how and why Buddhism was driven out of India, where it was born centuries ago, and to understand the minority experiences and circumstances that caused the breakup of the subcontinent into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan in 1947.

A further manifestation of that ethos currently is on display with the growing influence of India's "religious right" organization, the Bharathiya Janata Party (BJP). Any growth of religious extremism in India, with a population of almost 900 million, impacts heavily on all of the countries of the region.

The smaller countries of the subcontinent must also contend with an emerging U.S. policy of seeking to manage the post-Cold War world through regional surrogates. Such prioritizing of countries within geographical regions tends to place smaller members at the bottom of the pile unless they have some offsetting asset, as in the case of Israel, with its strong domestic media and political support in the U.S.

With the meltdown of the Soviet "evil empire," the ideological as well as the physical threat to the northern land mass of the Indian subcontinent has been greatly reduced. However, China's vast population, its economic growth rate and its remodeling of the Marxist-Leninist paradigm keeps policy-makers in the West concerned. It also heightens Western interest in buffer states like Nepal to India's north, and lends significance to access to the Indian Ocean in the south, wherein lie countries like Sri Lanka. Coincidentally, both Sri Lanka and Nepal formed new governments following turbulent elections in November 1994. Each presents an interesting, though different, scenario.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), an island country located some 21 miles south of the Indian mainland, comprises 25,330 square miles (as compared to India's 1,269,340 square miles) and has a population of about 18 million (as against India's almost 900 million). Not coincidently, Sri Lanka's $500 per capita gross national product is the highest in South Asia, and its annual 1.5 percent population increase is the lowest in the region.

Sri Lanka provides free education through the Higher Secondary (high school) level, has a 90 percent literacy rate, and life expectancy rates of 68 years for males and 73 years for females. All of these statistics are comparable with those in many developed countries. Sri Lanka's impressive economic growth rate of 6.8 percent is unmatched by any other country in the subcontinent.

What is particularly remarkable is that these figures have been achieved despite the political turmoil that Sri Lanka has experienced for more than two decades. …

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