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Democracy under threat in South Asia

Democracy under threat in South Asia

Democracy in South Asia faces critical challenges that jeopardize its very essence. From India to Pakistan, Nepal to Bangladesh, democratic principles are under siege as political actors employ various strategies—persuasion, monetary influence, punishment, and division—to achieve their goals. This article delves into the precarious state of democracy in the region, where traditional strategies outlined in Chanakya's Arthashastra—Sām (persuasion), Dām (monetary influence), Daṇḍ (punishment), and Bhed (division)—are increasingly prevalent.

Rise of populism and infodemic

Sām, once pivotal in democratic discourse, has been overshadowed by populism and demagoguery. Leaders manipulate rhetoric and propaganda via social media, blurring the line between persuasion and manipulation. The misuse of media platforms during elections amplifies misinformation, exacerbating communal tensions and undermining electoral integrity.

In the bustling streets of South Asian cities, amidst the clamor of election campaigns, a significant concern emerges: The infodemic. As political parties compete for power and influence, the misuse of media and social media platforms has become a potent tool in their arsenal, shaping public opinion and eroding the credibility of the electoral process.

The rise of populism and demagoguery has overshadowed the once-central role of persuasion in democratic discourse. Political leaders exploit rhetoric and propaganda to sway public sentiment, leveraging the pervasive reach of social media. During South Asian elections, the manipulation of media platforms shapes narratives, undermining the integrity of the electoral process. Misinformation proliferates rapidly online through fake accounts and sensationalist content, exacerbated by biased reporting in traditional media outlets. This phenomenon, often termed an "infodemic," fuels societal divisions.  

Dām: Corrupting influence of money

Dām, characterized using monetary power, has deeply infiltrated South Asia's political terrain, fostering an environment where corruption and cronyism thrive. Wealthy elites and influential interest groups wield disproportionate sway over policymaking and governance, exacerbating inequality and marginalizing disadvantaged communities. This commodification of democracy, where votes are traded like commodities, undermines the foundational principles of equality and fairness that democracy strives to uphold.

The pervasive influence of Dām, or monetary power, in South Asian politics fuels corruption and cronyism, allowing wealthy elites and interest groups to manipulate governance, exacerbating inequality, and disenfranchising marginalized communities. 

Daṇḍ: Punishment for adversaries

Despite attempts to utilize punishment to quell dissent, journalists, activists, and political dissidents continue to face harassment, violence, and imprisonment, eroding both freedom of expression and the rule of law. Nevertheless, grassroots movements and civil society organizations persist in their steadfast resistance, championing transparency and accountability. They represent a beacon of hope for a future where democracy prevails over authoritarianism.

It is evident that those in power spare no effort to punish their adversaries, who fall out of favor. This trend is increasingly prevalent in countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as well as in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. Such unwarranted harassment of opponents undermines the foundational principles of democracy, where freedom of speech and the ability to criticize are fundamental to a democratic society.

Bhed: Exploiting divisions

Politicians exploit societal faultlines—religious, ethnic, linguistic—to consolidate power. Identity politics fuels social tension and communal violence, weakening societal cohesion and democratic foundations.

In the intricate tapestry of South Asian politics, the insidious strategy of Bhed (division) wreaks havoc on societal harmony. Exploiting faultlines along religious, ethnic, and linguistic boundaries, politicians employ identity politics to consolidate power and rally support. By capitalizing on existing prejudices and grievances, they deepen social tensions and ignite communal violence.

The ramifications of employing divisive strategies like Bhed are severe. Once united communities now find themselves divided, plagued by distrust where harmony once prevailed. Political figures exacerbate these divisions, eroding social cohesion and undermining the foundation of democracy.

The effects of Bhed extend beyond politics, fracturing families with sectarian conflicts, leaving neighborhoods scarred by ethnic tensions, and societies shattered by communal violence. Nevertheless, for those in authority, the tactic continues to yield results: Divide and rule. Recently, the fragmentation of political opponents' parties has become a common practice in India and Nepal. However, amidst these challenges, there is hope for a more inclusive future. Grassroots movements and civil society organizations tirelessly strive to bridge divides and promote understanding. By countering the narrative of division and advocating for unity in diversity, they offer a beacon of hope in a fractured world.


In South Asia’s intricate political landscape, the misuse of Sām, Dām, Daṇḍ and Bhed poses significant challenges. Upholding democratic values requires bolstering institutions, promoting transparency, and nurturing civic engagement. Civil society, media and vigilant citizens must unite to defend democracy against divisive tactics.

In conclusion, while South Asia confronts formidable democratic challenges, collective action can pave the way for a robust and inclusive democracy. By rejecting divisive strategies and upholding democratic principles, the region can forge a resilient path forward.

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