Politics in South Asia, as the summer rains end, presents a dismal picture of turmoil. In Bangladesh, impending general election has unleashed a ferocious struggle between the two main political combatants. The future of the country does not rest in the animosity between Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, but who will tell them that? In Sri Lanka, the Sinhala-Tamil schism has for the moment been overtaken in intensity by the conflict between the government and the opposition, despite a crippling LTTE bomb attack on the capital’s airport which reduced the prized national airline—the best run in South Asia—to half its Fleet. Nepal is at a defining moment in its history as the Maoists and the political mainstream are locked in what seems to be an intractable knot between republicanism and consitutional monarchy. In Pakistan, the military commands the political arena, and has managed to enforce a semblance of order on a fractured land. It is too early to say how the experiment in partyless local democracy will work out in the long run, although this is one determined general in the middle of it all. India, repeatedly rocked by defence and financial sector scandals at the centre, prepares for what promises to be a violent and vituperative election in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, not too long after a round of state assembly elections left the ruling NDA combine in New Delhi reeling from dramatic reverses. Ayodhya and the Ram temple issue, and the ghost of the Babri Masjid are returning to haunt the Hindus and Muslims of the country. South India seems relatively less crisis-ridden, although Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa could change all that in one afternoon of ego-centricism. Meanwhile, violence in the now-familiar flashpoints of the Subcontinent continues without let or hindrance. Ali of Jammu and Kashmir is now officially under a security blanket. Northeast India is definitely in a worse state than Kashmir, with not even a strong case of cross-border infiltration to force the situation to such a pass.
Sri Lanka: Between the LTTE and the deep blue sea
Sri Lanka is stricken by a three-way conflict. It is presently a Sinhala vs Sinhala vs Tamil fight. The two main Sinhala parties, the People’s Alliance (PA) and the United National Party (UNP), are still far away from forming a national government, something they have been talking about for some time now. President Chandrika Kumaratunga and opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, cannot seem to hammer out an all party government in Colombo which could have been the prelude to a consensual approach in dealing with the Tamil insurgency.
Instead, Chandrika seems now willing to abandon dialogue with the opposition in order to start dialogue with Vellupillai Prabhakaran, whose insurgency itself assumed stunning proportions with the 24 July attack on the Colombo airport and airforce base.
Kumaratunga now heads a government reduced to a minority after one of its partners, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, broke away from the ruling coalition. Paced with a no-confidence vote, the President chose to prorogue parliament and shelve the matter for the present. Parliament is now slated to reconvene on 7 September, and that session should tell us whether Kumaratunga will resign from office and introduce a protocol of politics so rare in this part of the world, or continue with the South Asian practice of misusing office to contrive a new majority out of thin air.
There is talk now that the CM” is seeking an end to executive presidency, and wants the prime ministership for itself, which means a French-style government, with the president holding no portfolio but being consulted on all decisions. Rani] Wickremesinghe is under pressure from his party not to agree to a national government at a moment when the PA’s hands are weak. Any deal with the government, they say, ought to come after the government is defeated on the floor of the House. As if to push the country further towards the edge, the monsoon has been here in name only as the Sri Lankan south contends with unprecedented drought.
Nepal: Teetering constitutionalism
Up north, Nepal, gripped by a Maoist insurgency for the sixth year running, has seen a royal massacre and a new government led by Sher Bahadur Deuba. The mountain kingdom is going through its worst series of crises in modern history. And unlike what many had thought to be an insurgency that would peter out, the Maoists have gone from strength to strength, and are now in a bargaining position that would have been thought inconceivable only a couple of years ago—all the result of disarray among and within the mainstream, above-ground parties. As we go to press, the Maoists and the government are holding talks, with the rebels steadfastly holding on to their demands for an interim government, constitutional changes and the proclamation of a republic. As a sop to get the rebels to the negotiating table, the Deuba government has announced a ‘revolutionary’ socio-economic package, with land reform as its main agenda, a possibly unworkable plan which alienates the middle and upper classes of the Tarai at one go while the hill-centric parties sit smugly and espouse easy redistributive ideology. The situation overall is taral, but those who would welcome a comeback for an authoritarian monarchy fail to realise that times of flux are when to consolidate parliamentary democracy and not revert to autocracy.
Bangladesh: Violently political
And in Bangladesh, if it is an election year, can bloodshed be far behind? Other countries have violent insurgencies and movements, but Bangladesh’s mainstream politics are without doubt the most violent in our region. With elections scheduled for 1 October, the two main parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League, have stepped up their attacks on each other. The most perturbing news of the last year has been the murky agenda of whoever has been organising the massive blasts that have resulted in many deaths in Ramna Maidan, Kotalipara and other venues. The hope is that these are extremist and fanatical elements (religious or political) rather than groups linked to the main parties, which would truly spell disaster. The two prima donnas, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia are contesting in four and five seats respectively, displaying an abject lack of confidence in themselves and their party institutions. The future, however, if it is to be discovered can be located in Bangladesh’s succesful experiment with neutral caretaker governments. This time, too, it is likely that the caretaker government of Justice Latifur Rehman will be able to deliver a credibly elected government. While election observer teams sometimes have questionable value, it is a fact that Begum Zia restrained from rejecting the results of the last election in 1996 because of the presence of South Asian (led by Neelan Tiruchelvam) and Western election observers.
This time, Jimmy Carter will be there together with others to ensure that this election too will deliver a credible government which can serve a full term. May the best woman win!
Pakistan: General elections?
For all the long-term ramifications of military rule, Pakistan presents a more optimistic picture, strictly relative to what is happening in the neighbourhood countries. Perhaps because the country is run by a general, it does seem to have more ‘direction’ compared to the freewheeling anarchy elsewhere, though Pervez Musharraf’s critics are vehement (see Mushahid Hussain Syed’s “General Musharraf’s Roadmap: A khaki constitution?”, p. 26). With the legitimacy and national credibility gained at the Agra summit, the general returned to Islamabad having gained in stature—not a little because of the smart talking he did before India’s seniormost editors, aired inadvertently by an Indian satellite channel. Musharraf has shown an ability not to get hogged down in rhetoric, except in the case of Kashmir. In his Independence Day address on 14 August, he etched a “roadmap” for his country where he pledged general elections in October next year. While the nature of these elections are as yet unclear, at least the general is locked now to the date. Meanwhile he has deftly begun to take on the radical mullahs, cracking down on sonic religious outfits that espouse violent action. if there is a secret channel between New Delhi and Islamabad right now, and we are sure there is, Vajpayee is sure to have indicated satisfaction on this score.
Alternative power centres are being created by the military regime with the nonparty local bodies now in place. On the face of it, Musharraf’s appears to be the most polished form of politics that Pakistan has seen in a long while and one can do without doubting his sincerity. But since the combination of politician-general rarely works, it is clear that he will have to set an agenda when he releases the polity once again to the parties, come October next. The question then will be whether he will trade in his epaulets for the poltician’s kurta, and start a party of his own?
The Subcontinent of India
India, as befits any pretender to regional domination, has to handle a host of problems that are seemingly intractable. Itself a subcontinent on its own right, India’s politics is divided by region, with Kashmir and the Northeast as the publicised and unpublicised flashpoints respectively. Despite the hiccups all over the Indian map, however, the India of a billion plus continues to prosper in disparate and quiet corners. The states that one hears about the least are where things are on the mend, or a-building. Take your pick—Andhra, Haryana, Karnataka, and even West Bengal!
The Northeast is a “problem region” that Delhi cannot let fester for much longer. The latest drama unfolded following the agreement in Bangkok on 14 June this year, between New Delhi and the Naga militant group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah). Under this agreement the four-year-old ceasefire has been extended by one more year and several thousand square kilometres. This provoked disquiet in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and most importantly Manipur, which saw the agreement as the beginning of New Delhi’s recognition of the concept of Nagalim or Greater Nagaland, which has been a longstanding NSCN demand. Manipur saw the strongest protest because it has four Nagadominated districts—Senapati, Tamenglong, Ukhrul and Chandel. The final word on the pact is yet to be heard, although Home Minister L.K. Advani made an unilateral announcement that the ceasefire would be withdrawn from the states other than Nagaland (see Ram Narayan Kumar’s “Nagaland: Lessons of the Past”, p. 30). In the face of this, the Nagas themselves have shown welcome restraint. The reaction of the neighbouring states shows not only the Indian government, but also the Nagas themselves, how enormously complicated a matter it is, this demand for statehood, autonomy or whatever, when the demography on the ground is even slightly murky. The sudden explosion in Manipur will hopefully force the insurgents all over the Northeast to look at their own demands and try and gauge how far they are feasible on the ground.
The Agra Summit helped heap unprecedented attention on Kashmir, which has not benefited, and continues to burn. The chances of a political settlement seem slim, and the militants from across the border are if anything more inclined to violence as the Indian government recently gave more powers to the security forces in the state under the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act (1990). This security blanket now also includes Jammu, and the Act could see an escalation in human rights violations by the state in this most continously troubled corner of South Asia since 1947.
A related matter, fast on the heels of this J&K announcement, Home Minister Advani made a public statement regarding amnesty to the police, paramilitary and army men accused of violations of human rights. The minister also talked of bringing in an antiterrorist law on the lines of the lapsed Terrorists and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA). This string of decisions will, to say the least, further alienate the Kashmiris from the Indian state, while also having ramifications elsewhere. The Bw-led NDA combine is turning back the clock in quintessentially short-term measures which do not tackle underlying issues of identity and state violence.
The southern state of Tamil Nadu, recently witness to a form of comical politics on the basis of which the retributive and whimsical Jayalalithaa is back at its helm, is seeing a dance of state vis-a-vis centre which is the other larger trend worth watching in the India that does not face insurgencies. Days after assuming power, Jayalalithaa locked up former chief minister Karunanidhi, in the city jail. Karunanidhi’s party is one of the partners at the centre, and as we go to press, the chief minister is spoiling for a fight with the centre to rally forces around her and divert attention from the pending criminal charges against her. There are current and potential centre-state problems all over, which tend to get the short-shrift in the fire-fighting that characterises Indian politics.
In the elections to several state legislatures a few months ago, the BJP and its allies received a severe drubbing. Fault-lines have already appeared within the alliance, and party managers are more preoccupied with saving the government than getting it to perform. Considering that it required a threat of resignation by the prime minister to get one of its allies to toe the line, it remains a matter of conjecture as to how long the government survives the burden of its internal contradictions and tensions. The autumn season should be an interesting time for Indian politics.