Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June/July 1997, pgs. 45-46

The Subcontinent

India and Pakistan Engaged in Re-Examination of Kashmir Problem

By M.M. Ali

India and Pakistan have once again resumed bilateral talks "to normalize relations" between the two countries more than to resolve outstanding issues. In fact, the two neighbors have been pushed into the parleys more by external pressures than by any visible desire to meet on their own part.

"Can we be friends?" asked India's largest circulation news magazine, the bi-monthly India Today, in an April 15 front-page story on disputed Kashmir. Taking a different tack in the Kashmir capital of Srinigar before an elite audience which included U.S. Ambassador to India Frank Wisner, Chief Minister of Indian-occupied Kashmir Farooq Abdullah complained, "There is Allah above and Third World countries below, with the United States in between ordering things."

If Kashmir is a principal catalyst for the 50-year-old India-Pakistan dispute, many of the factors feeding it go far beyond Kashmir's borders. First is the inequality between the subcontinent's two principal states. India has 8 times the population of Pakistan, 900 million vs. 130 million people, and physically India is 5 times larger. In conventional weaponry, India is perhaps 10 times better equipped.

In spite of these imbalances, however, the two sovereign countries have generally been treated by other nations as being on the same level. There are reasons for this.

In spite of the professions of secularism made by the Indians, theirs is essentially a Hindu state (Hindutva or Bharath). Its single largest political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is in fact dedicated to this proposition. India's ethnocentricity therefore isolates it from the rest of the world in many respects, and often undercuts its size. Its extreme poverty causes it to lose some more international clout, as was evident when it lost badly to Japan when both competed for a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council early this year.

By contrast, Pakistan, in spite of its much smaller size, is very much a part of the Islamic bloc and now, with the liberation of the Muslim republics of Central Asia, it is geographically close to many Muslim neighbors. An additional measure of parity with India is provided by Pakistan's nuclear capability. Its chronic economic weakness, however, exacerbated by a reputation for corruption which seems to dwarf even that of India, puts both countries at a great disadvantage on the world stage.

This is the backdrop to talks between India and Pakistan that appear aimed more at appeasing Moscow, London and Washington than an earnest effort to solve problems that have dogged both countries for half a century. Perhaps the one unmitigated blessing coming from the talks is that when the subcontinent's two major powers are talking with each other, they generally desist from shooting at each other. The next round of talks at the prime ministers' level is scheduled for this month.

Changing the Guard in Delhi

India's 10-month-old 13-party United Front coalition government headed by Deve Gowda fell when Congress Party president Sitaram Kesri withdrew his party's support from it in the Lokh Sabha, the lower house of parliament. Gowda knew all along that he was only a compromise choice and that ever since Congress offered to support the United Front in the Sabha without joining the government, he was on borrowed time. Even Kesri realized that he was not the natural successor to Narasimha Rao (who had been forced out as prime minister and Congress party chief on corruption charges), but was brought in to stave off other rivals like Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar, who have been in contention ever since the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

To understand the current political uncertainty in India, four factors have to be kept in mind. First, the disintegration of the Congress party, which enjoyed power for almost 45 years out of 50. Second, the rise of the extremist right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party. Third, the growing push and pull between the northern "Hindi belt" and the southern non-Hindi-speaking states. And, fourth, the advanced age of most of the contenders on all sides for the prime ministership.

The first three are profound issues that will burden the country for many years to come. The fourth, age factor, is transient but impacts heavily on the current politics of India.

Since India obtained its independence in 1947, three leaders representing successive generations of the Nehru family, Jawaharlal, Indira and Rajiv, have dominated the Indian scene for most of the time while a band of veteran Congress leaders waited, and aged, in the wings. One of them, Narasimha Rao, was brought in only as a caretaker prime minister after Rajiv's death, but held on to the seat for a full five years until 1996. Other members of the old guard in contention for the premiership, including the BJP leaders, are in their 70s. Time is running out for them all.

Gowda knew all along that he was on borrowed time.

Sensing the septuagenarian rumblings all around, Deve Gowda, 62, started trying to break the hold of Kesri over the Congress high command and also to prolong his UF government, precariously balanced in a house of 545 members in which major party legislators are divided among the United Front, 179 seats; Congress, 139 seats; and BJP, 194 seats.

Kesri, 78, had to make his move before Gowda consolidated his position. Taking issue with UF dealings with the BJP in the key state of Uttar Pradesh, Kesri withdrew Congress support for UF in the Lokh Sabha, forcing Deve Gowda to resign when he failed to obtain a vote of confidence there. Kesri's tactics were not favored by all Congress insiders. Many preferred to continue their support for the UF government, especially since one alternative was to hold fresh elections in which BJP might increase its representation. A middle ground therefore was found by which Deve Gowda was replaced by Inder Kumar Gujral, 77, as UF leader and new prime minister.

Gujral, who grew up in what is now Pakistan and who writes poetry in Urdu, was a Marxist in his early years. Then he joined the Congress party and later left it to become a Janata Dal member. He has held previous cabinet positions and was foreign minister in Gowda's administration. Reportedly more broadly acceptable than either Kesri or Gowda, he is India's fourth prime minister in less than a year and, once again, Congress holds the key to Gujral's longevity.

Political Stability But Economic Unease in Pakistan

Basking in his spectacular election victory this year, new Pakistani Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif achieved in a single day what both he and his predecessor and perennial rival, Benazir Bhutto, tried to do unsuccessfully for nine years. By a two-thirds vote of the Senate and the National Assembly, he expunged the notorious Eighth Amendment to the Constitution which empowered a non-elected president to dismiss an elected prime minister almost at will. Nawaz Sharif moved fast by capitalizing on the high public opinion ratings that his Muslim League government enjoyed both inside and outside the parliament after its election victory. It was, perhaps, the most popular move of his long political career. It was applauded by Bhutto and generally welcomed by the public and the media.

During the past 10 years three presidents, Zia Ul Haq, Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Farooq Leghari all had used the law to depose prime ministers, and both Bhutto and Sharif had been its victims. Such casual use of an autocratic procedure had introduced an element of callousness into the democratic process. However, there also were redeeming features to the Eighth Amendment. Applied judiciously, it could act as a check on excesses by the prime minister. More significantly, it removed a pretext for direct intervention by the army into civil affairs. By dismissing the government and the assembly and calling for fresh elections, the president could obviate excuses for a military takeover.

Now that the Eighth Amendment is gone, the office of the president has become only ceremonial, and the prime minister retains all of the authority. And from now on, the prime minister has to maintain a clean and efficient administration to keep the army in its barracks. Pakistan, it may be recalled, has had intermittent bitter experiences with military dictators in its 50-year history.

This reform also means that President Farooq Ahmed Leghari who, despite his affiliation with Bhutto's People's Party was instrumental in her early dismissal, and who also is no friend of Mian Nawaz Sharif, has his days numbered. Once Sharif is out of the economic woods (which, unfortunately, is a very thick jungle), he can support his own person for the presidency.

Pakistan's Debt-Ridden Economy

Pakistan's rapid succession of governments has provided no quick fix to an economic problem that has continued for years. The country has been mortgaged to foreign lenders and international monetary agencies. The best that a World Bank operative could come up with during the recent interim administration that preceded the February elections was to find temporary relief by borrowing from commercial banks at exorbitant rates, thereby pushing the country into a still deeper hole. The early hope of finding new funds from within the country and from Pakistanis overseas is fast waning. The money that has come in during the first months of the Nawaz Sharif administration is insufficient, but the State Bank of Pakistan cannot be expected to print currency indiscriminately. Such actions only exacerbate the already high inflation rate and increase the nation's economic problems.

The immediate issue is to cover debt service charges to the IMF and the IBRD each June and December. That, alone, runs into billions of dollars. The international agencies are in no mood to reschedule loans or defer payments with any of their clients. At this writing a Pakistani financial team is in Washington to negotiate with the IBRD and the IMF, and the option of declaring bankruptcy is being openly discussed. Meanwhile, as Nawaz Sharif seeks to gain some time, he will have to find ways to put the country on a more even economic keel. No one said the journey would be easy, nor has any previous Pakistani government found it so.

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