Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1999 , pages 16-17

The Subcontinent

History Repeats Itself in Both India and Pakistan

By M.M. Ali

The 23-member National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been elected into power in India and BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee has become the prime minister again. In Pakistan, Mian Nawaz Sharif’s elected government has been dismissed through a military coup and General Parvez Musharraf has declared a state of emergency in the country, suspended the Constitution and has become “the chief executive” to set the internal “house in order.”

Formation of a democratically elected coalition government in India is nothing new, nor, unfortunately, is a military takeover in Pakistan, though both are fraught with difficulties. However, the subcontinent has learned to live with social, economic and political adversity. It’s déjà vu in both of its major countries.

BJP Returns to Power

Forced to go back to the voters by a single vote defeat in the Lokh Sabha (lower house of parliament) due to the defection of AIDMK leader Jaylalita from the last coalition government he headed, Bharatiya Janata Party head Atal Bihari Vajpayee emerged strengthened from India’s second national election in less than a year. He overcame a seemingly strong election challenge launched by the reorganized Congress party now headed by Sonia Gandhi, Italian-born widow of assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

But when the votes were counted the BJP and its allies had won 298 seats. Congress and its allies had 136 seats, and others 103 seats. The BJP alone had won 182 seats and Congress had won 113. BJP had made neither gains nor losses from its previous standing, but its dominance was reinforced by the weakening of the Congress party, which turned in the poorest performance in its parliamentary history.

Factors within the country that helped the BJP-led NDA to gain a majority include the breakaway of Sharad Pawar from the Congress party and the inability of Sonia Gandhi to shed her foreign image. Vajpayee’s personal moderate stance, even as the leader of a right-wing Hindu party, also helped middle-of-the-road voters to stay with the NDA.

Perhaps the biggest numerical difference was made by the Telegu Desham party of Andhra Pradesh that joined the NDA with its crucial 29 seats. Also important was the Vajpayee-led government’s success in completely repulsing the Pakistan army-supported incursion of Kashmiri independence fighters into the Kargil area within Indian-controlled Kashmir. The whole affair projected Vajpayee as a strong but rational leader of a nation under external attack.

BJP made its biggest gains in the deep south, where previously it had no political presence of any consequence. This was achieved through alliances with strong regional parties. The same formula was used to capture Orissa, and it made a major inroad in Bihar, where entrenched political leader Lalo Prasad Yadav was defeated. BJP gains in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan were largely due to the mistakes of Congress. Only in Delhi and Himachalpradesh did BJP make gains on its own.

Although the NDA has gained a comfortable majority in the Lokh Sabha, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s task has not been made any easier. Not only must he appease the disparate non-BJP groups to keep them in his coalition, he has to contend with powerful right-wing religious zealots within his own BJP who constantly pull him toward establishment of Hindutva—land of Hindus.

BJP was catapulted into political ascendancy by the Hindu religious frenzy unleashed in 1991 with the destruction of the historic Babri masjid in Uttar Pradesh by Hindu militants. Unfortunately, the same hard-line Hindu parties—the Rashtriya Sewak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Shiv Sena and the Bajrang Dal—still constitute the BJP core. Even a slight tactical climbdown from its extremist platform resulted in a BJP slide in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, from 60 seats in 1998 to 29 today.

The Congress Party

The dismal Congress party performance may be attributed to a number of factors, including the inexperience of party president Sonia Gandhi. Her unwillingness to compromise and work with dissenters cost her party opportunities to make gains in several states. Her refusal to join with Mulayam Singh to form a national coalition to replace the NDP had led to mid-term elections in the first place.

This time an alliance with the Samajwadi party and/or the Bhujang Samaj party could have totally routed BJP out of U.P. But this opportunity was also lost by Congress, whose controlling old guard is not in sync with the political realities of today.

They have marginalized state leaders and caused defections in many places. The party needs a thorough revamping. Aging leaders must make way for younger blood if Congress is to stay in the political game.

Ironically, the Congress stance has gained it another five years in opposition to give new life to the party. A beginning in this direction appears to have been made in Maharashtra, where Congress has agreed to join with the Sharad Pawar and form the government there.

Perhaps by the next elections Priyanka, the charismatic daughter of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, will be available to help fill the void at the helm of party affairs. The time has come for older Congress leaders to render a last useful service to the nation by retiring to write their memoirs.

Military Returns in Pakistan

Nobody claimed that Pakistani Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif was running a clean, tight ship, nor did anyone dispute the need for some kind of change to arrest the downward economic spiral of the country before the army took over the reins of government on Oct. 12, 1999. Military rule may not be palatable to many, but no one denies that venom also has medicinal value.

In fact, the change was triggered by Nawaz Sharif’s own action. While army chief-of-staff General Parvez Musharraf was attending a conference in neighboring Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Sharif dismissed him from Pakistan’s top military post and appointed Lt. Gen. Khawaja Ziauddin, director general of the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), in his place. Only a week earlier, to dampen widespread speculation that the nation’s top civilian and top military leaders were nearing an open confrontation, Sharif had extended Musharraf’s term for two more years.

Obviously, neither Prime Minister Sharif nor Intelligence chief Ziauddin knew that notwithstanding his extension, General Musharraf had put a contingency plan in place before he left for Sri Lanka, covering just such a dismissal by Sharif.

When it occurred, army corps commanders and other service chiefs refused to take orders from Ziauddin. In accordance with the plan, Lt. Gen. Mohammed Aziz, chief of the general staff, and Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmed of the 10th Corps immediately ordered their troops to occupy all key government buildings, including the prime minister’s house, the television station, the radio broadcasting station and the National Assembly in Islamabad.

Nawaz Sharif was placed under house arrest and Lt. Gen. Ziauddin was taken into military custody. Similar action was taken by Corps commanders in Punjab, Northwest Frontier Province, Sind and Baluchistan.

In the meantime, Musharraf had already taken off from Sri Lanka to return to Pakistan via Pakistan Airlines flight PK805 to Karachi. Apparently word of the military takeover in Islamabad had not reached the authorities at Karachi Airport, when they refused to allow PK805 to land.

The tense drama came to an end when the army moved in and cleared the airstrip to facilitate the landing of the plane carrying Gen. Musharraf and 238 other passengers when it had just seven minutes of fuel left.

All conversations between the aircraft pilot and ground authorities were recorded in the cockpit “black box.” Charges of treason and of attempted murder (of Musharaff, his fellow passengers and the crew) are being prepared by the army against a number of high and low officials who were involved in trying to prevent the aircraft from landing.

Three days after the takeover, in an Oct. 15 televised broadcast to the nation, General Musharraf said his objective is to “rebuild national confidence and morale, revive the economy, ensure law and order, depoliticize state institutions and ensure swift accountability.” To carry this out, he declared “a State of Emergency in the country,” suspended the Constitution, dissolved the National Assembly, and asked the courts and the president to cooperate with him in this task. Similar actions were taken in all of Pakistan’s four provinces.

General Musharraf further disclosed that, as the chief executive, he will work with a six-man council consisting of the navy and air force chiefs and experts on finance, law, foreign policy and internal affairs. The council will be assisted by a larger advisory council. All involved in this management team are to be non-political persons, mostly technocrats. Musharraf gave no time frame for the restoration of an elected government.

Intervention Welcomed

Perhaps the most striking reaction to the abrupt end of Nawaz Sharif’s 31-month-old government was the absence of audible protests. In fact, small groups welcoming the change appeared in the streets.

This public reaction, or lack of it, is key to understanding the state of affairs that existed toward the end of the period of democratically elected government. The country had $32 billion in foreign debt, and less than $1.5 billion in foreign currency reserves. Corruption was rampant. The law-and-order situation was abysmal.

Nawaz Sharif had used his party’s majority in the National Assembly to tamper with the Constitution, consolidating his own position while weakening the office of the president, the courts and the media. And obviously he had targeted the military, which had previously been the unchallenged power behind the throne.

Even decent health and educational facilities seemed to have drifted beyond the reach of the common citizen. There was growing evidence that a disillusioned populace was either fending for itself for security, or looking toward Divinity for help. Madrasas (religious schools) have graduated, according to one estimate, more than 350,000 young men in recent years. It will be recalled that an earlier crop of graduates of Pakistani madrassas have come to be known in Afghanistan as the Taliban, or the seekers of true knowledge.

The Task Ahead

Seemingly indifferent to the gravity of the situation, the international community, particularly the United States, the United Kingdom, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, all have protested the change and threatened to withdraw assistance to Pakistan unless Musharraf announces an early return to democracy. But in fact real democracy cannot flourish in an environment saturated with corruption, a country that in its more than half-century of existence has not escaped poverty, and a semi-feudal society in which a significant coterie have accumulated vast wealth.

If Pakistan’s people are prematurely compelled, for the fourth time in the past 12 years, to elect another political government into office before the system is cleansed of its corroding influences and individuals, the civil strife that already simmers in parts of the country could spread and intensify into a threat to the security of the entire region. A nuclear-capable, poverty-stricken and frustrated population of close to 150 million can become a powder keg ready to explode in one of the world’s most heavily populated areas if it is not handled with intelligent care. General Musharraf cannot be allowed to fail. He needs to be handled with kid gloves, not an iron fist. 


Prof. M.M. Ali is a consultant and a fellow with the Center for Planning and Public Policy based in the Washington, DC area.

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