A combination of incompetence and corruption produces staggeringly poor governance across South Asia, resulting all too often in political upheaval that produces cosmetic rather than comprehensive reforms. While the morass is almost entirely political, it does extend into other areas, including sports and even the performing arts, giving rise to the notion of a broader cultural malaise.

I believe that the typical reverence heaped on geriatric has-beens is an integral part of the problem, so much so that simply eliminating people from contention on ageist grounds may well become necessary if not critical in this environment.

Borat in South Asia

In the 2006 film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the protagonist lists the problems of his country as “economic, social and Jew”. The phrase is a post-ironic view of anti-Semitism that was followed across the Soviet bloc and then religiously adopted by the independent Central Asian republics, highlighting the sheer irrelevant world view used by leaders to stay in power around the world.

For all the recent shenanigans on view across Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, the film could have well been set in the South Asia region, with “Indian” replacing “Jew”. India itself is no paragon of virtue, as the frequent cry of an omni-sinister “foreign hand” behind every terrorist outrage by Indian politicians overeager to cover up their own incompetence and corruption. In the case of other South Asian nations, the idea of a hegemonistic India wreaking havoc across their countries for its own selfish aims is well grounded enough to be considered factual on the street.

In a previous article, [1] I wrote how the State of Israel would have to be invented if it didn’t exist, for the express purpose of keeping unctuous Arab leaders in power. Parallels to the Pakistani and Bangladeshi governments are difficult to ignore from here, with both using the India card to explain away their own incompetence.

The two recent instances involving the subversion of democracy in Bangladesh and the judicial system in Pakistan generated enough protests, but these will fizzle out once security considerations are aired more directly: to wit, the view that the regional hegemon will invariably take advantage of fractious political behavior at home will likely dull protests and push back any reforms that might otherwise have come about from persevering.

Indian conspiracy theorists – and the country has a particularly large supply of these folks, perhaps an inevitable result of broad education and exposure to US media – point to the role of the ruling Congress party itself in the recent explosions on the Friendship Express (a train that runs between India and Pakistan), as politicians attempted to divert public attention from the sharp rise in inflation that had put the government’s popularity on a sharp nosedive before crucial state elections. [2]

Whatever be the actual facts, shifts in popular opinion that underpin such mutual distrust highlight the strongest possible reasons for conflicts never to be resolved, be it the Kashmir issue or the sharing of river waters or any other issues that South Asian neighbors have with one another.

Decline in sports and popular culture

Clues of what really ails the body politic across South Asia can be found away from the arena, namely in the areas of sports and popular culture. South Asian films are notoriously awful to watch, at once unoriginal, insipid and predictable. The focus appears overwhelmingly to be in telling the same story, each time with minor changes, thereby leaving the focus almost entirely on how it is told rather than what is.

From the culture that spawned the great Hindu epics, innovative children’s tales, tales of the Buddha and his descendant seers Bodhisattvas, the paucity of quality in the performing arts is clearly representative not so much of cultural backwardness (by which I mean an inability to generate the talent required) but rather a combination of economic and social factors.

In a previous article [3] I wrote about Hollywood’s penchant for stereotyping Muslims as villains simply because of the ease of selling the concept to US audiences. The echoes of such economic forces can be found across South Asian films, where “leading men are often geriatrics even as leading ladies are updated with the latest models”, to use a colorful phrase of a Hollywood producer. The dramatic limitations thus posed end up creating a vicious circle of awful quality that is force-fed to the unresisting audience, in turn generating self-perpetuating economics of producing such films.

Similarly has-been stars, throwbacks to a gentle bygone era, dominate the world of sport. Many Indians I have met have commented about their chances in the current cricket World Cup, based on a victory in 1983, while Pakistanis do the same based on a victory in 1992. Both teams were eliminated in the first phase of the competition. Similar fates befall the teams in field hockey, soccer or, even worse, athletics. The region has recorded no progress in the world of sport since the mid-1980s, mainly because of bureaucratic lethargy and a culture of indifference.

Cultural swamp

Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of the people of South Asia, whose tolerance of mediocrity knows no bounds. The cultural reverence for seniority all too often extends to the world of sports and films, and has been well captured by politicians for their own benefit. In other words, someone is appointed a minister or captain because of his age rather than any particular performance credentials.

This is why politicians indicted for corruption claw their way back to the mainstream in record time, feats that are impossible in any other part of the world. They have the company of poorly performing sportsmen and actors, who are backed by millions of the faithful even if results are virtually absent for years at a stretch. Any attempts to reform this status quo are met with resistance from vested interests, who use the threat of external factors to keep their jobs. In any event, respect for seniority makes meaningful reforms a difficult task. Thus politicians vested with the task of running sports pick the teams that they would be comfortable with, ie, filled with senior, well-known faces who would be approved by the public, rather than a combination of talented youngsters more likely to make a mark.

A lack of choice is a wonderful thing, be it in politics, films, music or sports, for it helps to maintain the status quo admirably for otherwise hopeless individuals. South Asia cannot hope to crack through the barrier of growth dividing it from China unless this comfortable equilibrium is shattered. An indicator of how soon this will happen can be found by tracking the progress of these countries in the sports arena, whether one counts soccer, field hockey, athletics or even the more elitist disciplines of cricket, golf and tennis. Using that metric, China has nothing to worry about for a while.

1. Garfield with guns, Asia Times Online, September 2, 2006.
2. India 1, China 0, ATol, March 3.
3. Why Hollywood portrays Muslims as villains, ATol, March 24.