foreignpolicy.com – JUNE 16, 2022, 5:00 PM
This week brought news that the health of two former South Asian leaders has taken a turn for the worse. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who ruled the country as a military dictator for nearly a decade in the 2000s, is hospitalized with a rare and incurable disease that causes organ damage. In Bangladesh, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who served two separate terms, had a heart attack.
That many South Asian leaders have reached old age speaks to the relative improvement in the region’s political stability, after decades when executions by coup or assassinations were not uncommon in some countries. Former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have each recently experienced health issues. India lost one former prime minister in 2018, and Pakistan has lost two former leaders since 2020.
As the older generations pass the baton to younger political figures, questions naturally arise about what this next generation will look like—and how they will lead. Signs indicate that significant continuity with the past is still the most likely outcome. Although South Asia may build on a recent trend of new or anti-establishment leaders, many top political figures will come from the same long-standing parties, and the region’s dynasties will endure.
Two recent leaders, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, both portrayed themselves as populist alternatives to the political elite. Neither is the product of a dynasty, and each has enjoyed significant youth support, despite taking office in their 60s. (Modi is now 71 years old.) But their breaks from the past aren’t as sharp as they suggest. Khan’s cabinet featured officials with experience from older political parties or military governments, and Modi has embraced a policy of self-sufficiency that prevailed in the past.
Few new major political parties have emerged in South Asia in recent years. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, launched in 1996, is one of the newest. Those that emerged in the last decade, such as India’s Aam Aadmi Party, lack national clout. Dynastic parties—the Gandhis’ Congress in India, the Sharifs’ Pakistan Muslim League, Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party—have performed poorly in recent elections. But their finances and use of political patronage ensure they will endure as their younger scions take on party leadership roles.
Around the region, the status quo dies hard. Sri Lanka’s acute economic crisis has put the powerful Rajapaksa family on the defensive, but one of its members remains president, and a divided opposition has failed to present a strong alternative. Bangladesh’s Awami League, a party that predates independence, has controlled the country since 2009; it is led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, herself part of another dynasty.
Against this backdrop, getting an infusion of new blood into politics seems tough. South Asian countries have a large youth bulge and a median age of 28, but young people without wealth or family connections face barriers to enter politics. Additionally, surveys suggest many youth may not wish to pursue political careers in the first place. Polls show many young Indians are cynical about politics, view corruption as a major problem, and have “no interest at all” in politics.
Of course, there are young South Asians interested in careers in public service, and opportunities to get them there, such as the Youth Parliament Pakistan program, are increasing. But making politics a more attractive career requires major changes from within, beginning with reducing corruption. Political parties also must genuinely address youth concerns, such as job creation and vocational skills programs. Younger generations may be inspired if more officials running youth-focused ministries were young people—and not just young dynasts.
For now, South Asia’s politics will continue to be dominated by these old-guard families and parties even as populist alternatives emerge. Either way, these near-future leaders aren’t likely to reverse the region’s democratic backsliding.