In a fairly rapid transformation, South Asia, which seemed relatively stable, has once more become a place of political turmoil. Several of the countries of this region find themselves enmeshed in unexpected internal problems and seem headed for more. It was not so long ago that South Asians could congratulate themselves on having found answers to besetting political problems through electoral methods. A tide of democracy seemed to have swept over the region, offering fresh hope of better mutual cooperation and a reduction of divisive tensions. The region's democratic achievement is not to be decried: the leaders now awash in a sea of troubles have been legitimately elected to the high offices they occupy, and have not simply assumed them, as was often the case in the past. But the political structures in several countries of the region seem fragile, and democracy alone has not solved the difficult underlying problems; nor does the necessary forbearance and tolerance of opposition views seem to come naturally to all those currently in authority, democratically elected though they may be. Ever-present rumours and fears of dark conspiracies complicate the tasks of governance. From the vantage point of New Delhi, one sees confusion and uncertainty in all directions. The most recent democratic gain was in Bangladesh where just a few months ago Sheikh Hasina was swept into power through a transparent and fair election. The shadowy army-backed regime that had exercised authority for a couple of years moved out of the way and left the field to the democratically restored prime minister. But even as the new administration was getting on with its programme, Bangladesh was rocked by a mutiny in the paramilitary BDR. What happened and why has become a matter of sharply differing assessment. The early belief that this was caused by a revolt by the rank-and-file over pay and their dissatisfaction at the army officer corps that command the BDR no longer commands a great deal of credibility. The scale of the event, its violence, and several as-yet unexplained features have led many observers in Bangladesh to look for deeper and wider causes, so that the country is rife with conspiracy theories and many different explanations have being put forward and diverse accusations made. Although official inquiries are in progress, the doubts and accusations have not abated. This has struck at the government's standing and complicated its task. Sheikh Hasina is a courageous and forward-looking leader. She is regarded as friendly towards India which can ignite suspicion in the badly fractured polity of Bangladesh. In 1996 she was bold enough to join with India in an accord on the sharing of the Ganga waters, thus eliminating a problem that had sometimes seemed no less intractable than that of Kashmir. Now, she faces a tough challenge to restore her authority and get on with the business of governing her country. In India's Himalayan neighbour Nepal the hard-won gains of democracy seem under threat. There is a faint echo of events in Pakistan when one considers how political rivals in Katmandu were able after a long dispute to combine and dislodge a leader who had arbitrarily assumed an excess of power, but then found it difficult to maintain their unity of purpose as the former 'head' faded away. In Nepal, the Maoists constitute the largest party in Parliament and have been in control of the government for some three years. But they have not succeeded in adequately providing what the people demand and have come under public pressure to perform. The relationship between the government and the parliamentary opposition has become more edgy. More threateningly, localised groups and parties have become assertive, breeding fissiparous sentiments. Thus dangers to democratic governance mount in Katmandu, and with them darker thoughts about what India could be doing in this situation. Across the southern tip, events in Sri Lanka have raised fresh concerns. Militarily, the government is going strong and there seems no stopping its campaign against the LTTE which is being pushed into an ever tighter corner. However, this means that civilians are increasingly exposed to risk, and there is growing disquiet on their behalf among official and non-official agencies in many different parts of the world. Arrangements to move them out of harm's way have been inadequate, as have been the relief efforts for the growing number of refugees. The state authorities blame the LTTE for using civilians as a human shield against the advancing military forces. Reports from the war zone are confusing but the refugee problem now claims priority and colours external perceptions of the situation. It can resonate with special significance across the Palk Strait where the welfare of the minority Tamils is a constant source of unease. As the fighting persists and the refugee situation continues to deteriorate, these concerns are likely to strengthen. And then there are the events in Pakistan which are the biggest current concern. The ding-dong struggle between President Zardari and his challenger Mr Nawaz Sharif remains undecided. What is evident, however, is that political uncertainty at the top has taken a toll on the government. Frequent changes of course, differences within the ruling party, ministerial resignations, opposition on the streets, frequent terror attacks, media scepticism, all have combined to affect the credibility of the government. It has been obliged to give way to fundamentalist groups who are now effectively lodged in several parts of the country. Pressures from outside are a further complication, especially those coming from the USA, which wishes to see a more active Pakistani role against the Taliban in Afghanistan. To add to it, there is the unyielding Indian demand for effective action against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks. It is a tense and difficult time where the finer points of democracy and parliamentary practice seem almost irrelevant. India cannot but be concerned at developments that seem to point to a systemic challenge to the state, with incalculable consequences for the region as a whole. While these events are taking place all around it, India is preoccupied with the general elections that are now absorbing more and more of its energies. No fresh initiatives of any great consequence are to be expected until after the elections are concluded and a new government is in position. The multiple challenges to regional diplomacy must remain unaddressed until then, nor is there any sign that the leading contenders for authority are fashioning initiatives for the future. Yet the deterioration all around us calls for carefully moderated policies towards all the regional partners to revive cooperation and underwrite stability. The country's security over the longer term requires no less, and this is a challenge for whichever government emerges from the coming elections. The writer is India's former foreign secretary