View from the neighbourhoodhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/view-from-the-neighbourhood/

View from the neighbourhood

A weekly look at the public conversations shaping ideas beyond borders — in the Subcontinent.

View from the neighbourhood
Voters queue at a voting center during the general election in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Source: REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain)

Cost of victory

Shahedul Anam Khan, a retired brigadier-general of the Bangladesh Army and associate editor with the Daily Star analyses the January 3 victory of the Awami League (AL) and Sheikh Hasina, and whether the elections were truly free and fair. The election has been given “a clean chit by a group of foreign observers who were given ‘a guided tour’ of some polling centres in the capital only. One had not heard much of this group before, and some of them had no credentials as international election monitors,” writes Khan.

That the AL has performed even better than in 2014, when it was virtually without rival, will certainly give the party confidence. That the BNP has dwindled to electoral irreverence will also mean a change in the country’s politics. Khan writes: “Indeed, BNP failed to see through the well-crafted AL strategy. It was taken up with only one issue — release of Khaleda Zia. And one can’t expect much from a party that is being backseat-driven by an absentee landlord sitting a thousand kilometres away; and the party continued to carry a political deadweight like Jamaat with it. But how well can a party fare when the entire state machinery is arrayed against it? To carve out an election strategy under these circumstances, particularly when most of their mid and grassroots level workers were constantly on the run, was a tall order.”

But the greatest threat to democracy that has emerged, ironically from an election, is “the loss of integrity of the election process and election commission.”: “‘Peaceful’ and ‘participatory’ has no correlation with the fairness of the process. The common refrain of “sporadic incident” cannot wash. Widespread irregularities were observed but there was no means to record those because photography inside those ‘secret’ rooms were barred. It was quite inexplicable why, when there were thousands lined up outside the centre, were the booths nearly empty, and why the line hardly moved, and why many returned without being able to cast their vote.”

Pakistan’s Aadhaar

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The National Database and Regulatory Authority (Nadra) in Pakistan appears to be mired in controversies similar to those in India with respect to Aadhaar and the UIDAI. Anum Malkani, a development practitioner writes in Dawn on January 6 about “questions on the increasingly stringent identification requirements in Pakistan and their impact on civil rights and inclusive development”. Over the last few weeks, bank account holders have been asked to visit their branches to have their biometrics scanned, ostensibly for eliminating fake accounts.

After establishing the need for security and identity, Malkani highlights “The debate around privacy and surveillance has been a recurring theme with Nadra as it continues to expand its functions and applications”. The Safe Cities project for example, pairs footage from a widespread CCTV network with facial recognition software. The data, stored with Nadra, will give a “360-degree view” of citizens to the state, prompting fears of government over-reach and misuse.

Then there’s the problem of exclusion: “In the recent case of the drive across Pakistan for banks to have all their customers biometrically verified, the requirement adds yet another layer of complexity for accessing basic financial services — for example, for those whose fingerprints may not be recognised (due to old age or manual labour), or for those who face challenges in visiting bank branches (including women or people in rural areas). Where biometrics are lacking, facial recognition and iris scans are being introduced, but the collection of increasing amounts of physiological data on people comes with its own ethical baggage.”

Sirisena’s trilemma

Hurried amendments to the Sri Lankan constitution have made a bad situation worse, according to the January 5 editorial of The Island. The crisis for President Maithripala Sirisena is this: “The executive presidency is the be-all and end-all of the present Constitution, and there has been a campaign for abolishing it on the grounds that it is too powerful and, therefore, inimical to democracy. But how true is this claim? President Mathripala finds himself in a tight spot; he holds several ministerial posts, but cannot have bills presented in Parliament because he does not have a minister representing his party in the House. He and the UNF ministers are at daggers drawn and he cannot depend on them to act as his proxies in Parliament.”

The options before the president are limited. He can try and strong-arm his way through, “but the UNP does not fear him, either legally or politically”. He could also make “another u-turn and opt for a national government if the UNP is willing to share power in spite of its nasty experience in October.”

“The last option is for the President to give up all ministerial posts… But the question is whether he is prepared to resign himself to retirement after the conclusion of his first term,” says the editorial.