Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July/August 2004, pages 36-37

The Subcontinent

Congress Emerges Victorious in Indian Elections Upset

By M.M. Ali

India’s new Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (l) speakes with Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi after taking his oath of office May 22 at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi. Singh, a Sikh, is the country’s first non-Hindu prime minister (AFP photo/Raveendran). 


THE INDIAN electorate has taken almost everyone by surprise. Perhaps the only winners were the London bookmakers. There’s no doubt that the big loser was Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who, relying on the advice of such right-wingers as L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Bal Thackeray, and trusting the Hindu acharayas (priests) called for early elections. Even the savviest of India’s political pundits had figured that the prime minister’s Bharathiya Janata Party (BJP) was invincible and would sweep the elections, riding high on the tide of economic growth, India’s emerging stature in world affairs and its peace overtures with Pakistan. They could not have been more wrong, however.

Not only did election results disgrace the BJP, but the Indian National Congress has emerged, phoenixlike, as parliament’s single largest party. Even the right-wing politics of groups such as Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Jan Sangh, which had divided India along communal lines, were unsuccessful. The urban hi-tech industries, which had attracted much foreign investment, proved to be inadequate in the face of the widespread poverty, illiteracy and economic deprivation in the country’s hinterland, where the majority of Indians live.

As it turned out, the message of the Indian elections is that, in “the world’s largest democracy,” urban glitter was defeated by the drudgery that remains widespread in rural India. A glaring example of this was provided by the voters of Andhra Pradesh, who threw out of office Chief Minister Chandra Babu Naidu, who had been instrumental in developing Hyderabad as a hi-tech city, bringing in investors like Bill Gates. All this urban growth, however, had taken place while nothing was done to alleviate the rampant poverty and illiteracy in the rural areas, where some 3,000 farmers reportedly have committed suicide in the past two years. Results were similar in other cities such as Bangalore and Bombay.

The election results not only stunned the BJP, but have taken the Congress totally unprepared. The only undeniable reality is that no single party can form a government by itself. Indeed, coalition governance appears to be the norm in Indian politics. With the help of Mulayam Singh Yadhav of Uttar Pradesh and Laloo Prasad Yadhav of Behar, and with left-wing groups offering support, however, Congress has been able to form the government in Delhi.

When it comes to their own, Indians who otherwise are very democratic and progressive can become bigoted and reactionary. Forgetting that the first head of state after independence in 1947 was a Britisher, Lord Louis Mountbattan—who stayed in office until he rushed back home to become First Lord of Admirality in England—and that even L.K. Advani, deputy prime minister in the last regime, was born in Pakistan, BJP leaders launched an ugly campaign against Sonia Gandhi because she was foreign-born. In order to maintain unity in the ranks and not allow the defeated parties to distract the nation, the Italian-born Congress leader and widow of assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi decided not to accept the office of prime minister. She offered it instead to Congress stalwart Manmohan Singh.

This is a sad story in the otherwise bright political picture. BJP has left India polarized between its Hindu majority and vast minorities. Its Hindutva agenda has not disappeared, and can always stage a comeback and disrupt the country. With Vajpayee consigned to a political backseat, it would surprise no one if BJP hard-liners harass Congress by launching street demonstrations demanding action on the Hindu agenda (“saffronization”). Some Indian Muslims who joined the BJP in hopes of becoming part of the winning side today look like political opportunists who lost their bet.

The new Congress government certainly has its hands full, however. While it must go easy on the issue of privatization and keep its left-wing partners satisfied, it also must develop its own multi-party agenda and keep the deprived minorities within its fold. Agriculture must have top priority.

The main lesson to be learned from the Indian election results is that, regardless of the system’s weaknesses, periodic elections do create an increasingly ingrained political culture and will produce positive results over time. As we currently are seeing in Delhi, until we can come up with a better and more efficient political mechanism, a peaceful transfer of power through the ballot box is the most civilized way to change governments. India deserves to be congratulated on this score.

Dr. Manmohan Singh, a graduate of Cambridge and Oxford and a former finance minister, is a highly respected man who understands the economics and the politics of India. He also realizes that he is prime minister by default. It was Sonia Gandhi’s sagacity and graciousness that averted a dirty and divisive opposition campaign already being fomented by the BJP leadership. By declining the office of prime minister, Sonia has enhanced her political stature and is now Delhi’s formost kingmaker—as evidenced by the fact that her nominee for parliamentary speaker, the Communist Party’s S. Chatterji, was approved by the Lokh Sabha.

Along with strong Congress leaders, Singh needs to include some non-Congress heavyweights in his cabinet. He also must reorganize the Congress party on regional lines and build an organizational hierarchy.

Domestically, he has the needed acumen to restructure India’s economic and finance sectors. Here, again, Singh must make peace with the industrial houses that in recent years rushed ahead with privatization. To be sure, foreign investment is necessary—but not at the cost of neglecting the majority of rural Indians who live off the land.

The BJP’s component parties—especially the likes of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, Rashtrya Sawem Sewak Sang, the Shiv Sena and Jan Sangh—have agitated and spread hatred between communities. Since the 1990s, when Congress’ internal weaknesses catapulted BJP into power, the former ruling parties have tried to tamper with India’s history, portraying Muslims and Christians as villains. That process must be reversed. The youth of India deserve a more objective education.

External affairs played a small role in India’s democratic regime change. It was deomestic reality that evicted the BJP. Manmohan Singh must meet the challenge facing the country. Fortunately, he has the team to do it.

Afghanistan Remains Unsettled

It is not only in Iraq that things have not gone as Washington had anticipated. The situation in Afghanistan remains equally unsettled, especially on the military and political fronts. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and neocon cabalist Zalmay Khalilzad (see April 2003 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, p. 12) in effect acknowledged that it had been a mistake on America’s part to walk away from the region following the withdrawal of Soviet forces. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has made a similar acknowledgment. The civil strife that ensued caused Afghanistan to split among several tribal loyalties, broadly divided between the north and the south.

The rise of the Taliban—another byproduct of U.S. assistance—introduced religious extremism in the country. Primarily Pashtuns (the country’s largest ethnic group) from the south, their ascension to power exacerbated the split with the north and its largely Uzbek, Hazara and Turkmenistan population. Following the tragic events of 9/11, the U.S. decided to go after the Taliban and the al-Qaeda leadership. Today the Taliban are scattered, and largely vanquished.

The interim government under Hamid Karzai is trying its best to restore order. In the north, however, regional warlords like Abdul Rasheed Dostam and Ismael Khan have set up their own fiefdoms and continue to defy Kabul. Karzai is constantly engaged in trying to cool down military resistance there, and has attempted on several occasions to reach a compromise with the various warlords.

In the south, the Taliban and remnants of al-Qaeda have found shelter in the region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. U.S. forces have had to go after the Taliban several times in recent weeks, and Pakistani troops have even been conducting military operations in the Wazirastan area to try and curb al-Qaeda. Islamabad, too, has had to come to terms with local tribal chiefs, on whom it is now depending to hand over non-Pakistanis hiding in the Federally Adminstered Tribal Area (FATA). This reflects how difficult the region is even for established governments with a strong military force.

The essential issues facing Afghanistan are maintaining peace, reorganizing the economy, and establishing a democratic government through elections. Each is a challenge, and has defied realization. Despite the fact that NATO forces have been deployed to assist Karzai, peace remains elusive. Nor has the administration in Kabul been able to develop a viable economy to replace the farming of poppy, which remains the country’s major cash crop. The heroin extracted from the poppy seeds is shipped to the outside world in huge quantities—but the options for Afghan farmers are very limited. It is evident that, in many cases, even American troops look the other way.

The holding of promised elections this coming September also is a very daunting matter. A tribal society that traditionally has operated through the Jirga system has yet to learn all the the nuances of elections. Moreover, thus far less than one-sixth of the voting population has been registered. The challenge is especially serious in the case of the female population, which has remained completely cut off from public life for centuries.

While American frustrations are evident, its stated ambition to transform a medieval society into a modern one cannot be achieved through surgical military operations in a matter of months. Given the chaos that has characterized Afghanistan for the past two decades, it will take at least a few more years to restore peace and order.

The more recent U.S. experience in Iraq, of course, is not helping anyone in Afghanistan.

As Usual, Pakistan Has Its Hands Full

Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has had to step back in FATA, where he had deployed his army to capture foreign elements that had joined al-Qaeda and reportedly were hiding in South Waziristan—a very difficult terrain where normal civil administration always has been nominal and tribal chiefs have ruled. It remains so even today.

Nor have domestic politics made much headway. Clearly encouraged by Musharraf, however, several splinter groups have rejoined the official Muslim League. This may be because current indications are that the way is being paved for Musharraf to become president of the League when he is ready to retire from the army. The latter eventuality is debatable, of course—especially when and how it will happen. Should it in fact come to pass, it would be a case of history repeating itself, the original player being Field Marshall Ayub Khan.

Yet another controversial formality is the appointment of Maulana Fazlur Rahman of the Mutahidda Majlis Amal (MMA) as leader of the opposition in the National Assembly. The decision by the Commonwealth of Nations to restore Pakistan’s membership, on the other hand, has created no great excitement in the country. As a matter of fact, Musharraf has objected to the condition attached to the Commonwealth’s decision that he cease wearing his military uniform.

In an exclusive, nationally televised interview designed to silence the rumor mill, President Musharraf disclosed that some low-level military and air force personnel were involved in the recent failed assassination attempts on him. Promising an open military trial of the suspects in custody, Musharraf said the mastermind of the attempts still is in hiding and has yet to be arrested. A May 28 Washington Post report identified the man as one Amjad Farooqi—also said to be the person who killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Karachi’s law-and-order crisis that had subsided in recent years once again has reared its head—sometimes in the form of plain criminal acts, other times as sectarian riots. Several recent bombings there, in fact, have been attributed to al-Qaeda groups. Pakistan, it seems, finds its hands always full. If it is not external affairs that consume its attention, domestic matters keep the government busy. While one hopes that, with India’s Congress party now in power, regional relations, at least, will be much more peaceful, one is soon enough reminded that nothing is predictable in South Asia. 


Prof. M.M. Ali is a specialist on South Asia based in the Washington, DC area.