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18 May 2016 Editorial


18  MAY 2016

Speaking up in numbers

Along election season is finally coming to a close. Polling for elections to the legislative assemblies in West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry began on April 4, and concluded on May 16. A cluster of elections in States as far apart geographically as Kerala and Assam — and as varied in the ideological choices before the voters as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu — is bound to change the political landscape of the country. In the hiatus between polling and the counting on May 19, one message of the people of India already rings loud and clear: they have kept their date with the ballot at the voting booth. The voter turnout in some of the States that went to the polls this year is as high as 84.7 per cent, as in Assam, where it is nearly 9 percentage points more than it was in 2011. Similarly, based on provisional estimates from the Election Commission, Kerala’s turnout increased by 2.1 points to 77.4 per cent. Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and West Bengal may have suffered drops of 4.03, 2.1 and 1.9 percentage points respectively, but the registered turnouts of 74.3 per cent, 84.1 per cent and 82.8 per cent are quite high. This trend of rising participation in the democratic process is in tune with the pattern seen over the last decade or so. Certainly, voter interest has been enhanced because of the relative ease in polling brought about and other steps taken by the EC. These include an increase in the number of polling stations, the use of voter identification cards and photo electoral rolls, and a computerised system that allows for easier verification of residence. The EC’s outreach through various public officials and well-known personalities as part of its voter awareness programme has given voting a do-good aura. And the Commission’s regular updates of electoral rolls have taken off the list the names of people who have moved home, resulting in an increase in voting percentages.

Indian democracy occupies a unique position among parliamentary democracies, not only in terms of the scale of electioneering and overall participation but also the social inclusion that voting day witnesses. The enhanced participation of the poor and marginalised sections in the voting process in India is in contrast to that seen in many developed countries, such as the U.S., where gerrymandering and lack of documentation in effect disenfranchise them. Indeed, Indian voters speak of feeling special on polling day. Waves of electoral reform and the EC’s continued initiatives have simplified the voter registration process. But this special feeling draws from more than the administrative processes — at the voting booth, for that polling day, every Indian stands equal. Voters, especially those from the deprived segments, often speak of the self-affirmation they perceive on this day, when the Constitution’s promise of equality is tangible, however transiently. It is a reminder of the compact the state has with citizens, with those who have reposed faith in the system and in the leaders they elect.

The ghosts of Sykes-Picot

West Asia lies in tatters. Parts of the border between Iraq and Syria have been virtually erased by the Islamic State. Syria itself is divided among multiple groups. Iraq’s government has no control over at least a fourth of its territory. Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region, has demanded freedom from Baghdad. The Syrian Kurdistan region is being run by the Kurds themselves for the first time in several decades. The regional map is fractured in many more ways. What triggered this crisis? Part of the blame lies with a century-old agreement between Britain and France that is viewed as the source of the modern map of West Asia. When the British and French signed the Sykes-Picot pact a century ago — on May 16, 1916 — to divide the huge land mass of the Ottoman Empire between themselves, their primary concern was to retain their colonial interests. In the process, the map prepared by diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot ignored local identities, leaving several ethnic and social contradictions unaddressed. Even when actual boundaries were identified after the First World War, the focus was on colonial and regional interests, not on the political preferences of the people. Against this background, it may not be a coincidence that over the years the most powerful political ideologies that emerged from the region directly or indirectly challenged the Sykes-Picot system. Both Nasserism and Ba’athism sought to transcend the territorial nationalist boundaries. Egypt and Syria even went ahead to declare a United Arab Republic, an experiment that collapsed after the 1961 coup in Damascus. And now, even Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the IS, calls for an end to the “Sykes-Picot conspiracy”.

The modern map of the region may not bear any great resemblance to the original lines drawn by Sykes and Picot. What matters more now than the actual Sykes-Picot map is the legacy of the agreement: foreign interventions. From the colonial carve-up to the Iraq war or the fight against the IS, foreign involvement in the region continues, and often exacerbates the crises rather than solving them. Equally problematic has been the failure of West Asia’s leaders to live up to the challenges of their respective states. Over the years, they resisted reform and ran largely oppressive systems rooted in social conservatism and patronage. They showed no interest in tackling the problems the Sykes-Picot pact failed to address, such as the Kurdish question. Their authoritarianism simply sharpened the social contradictions in their states, while intra-regional rivalries made peace elusive. The rise of the IS is a result of these external and internal problems. If the Iraq war unleashed sectarian and jihadist demons, they found a battlefield in Syria where President Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship triggered a civil war, which was in turn worsened by his regional rivals. Both the interventionists from abroad and the warring dictators at home should rethink their approaches. Else, the ghosts of Sykes-Picot will continue to haunt West Asia.

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