Even when it is not blowing, it blows
Who can lash down the wind?
– Ramesh Prajapati in the Hindi poem “Hawa”
Polls in Afghanistan have once again proven that feuding warlords often decide electoral outcomes in fractured societies. According to Ahmad Fahim Hakim, deputy chairman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), “More than 80 percent of winning candidates in provinces and more than 60 percent in the capital Kabul have links to armed groups.” Despite the preponderance of politicos of uncertain provenance, the composition of the Wolesi Jirga (lower house) is such that it will not be able to challenge the sweeping powers of President Hamid Karzai and his American overlords.
The Taliban may have failed to disrupt the elections, but if the Parliament proves as ineffective as it is expected to be, the ominous warnings of US Army General Jason Kamiya could yet come true: “There still will be an enemy insurgency next spring.” President Karzai’s claims notwithstanding, Afghanistan is far from a success story on the road to democratisation.
In these parts of the Hindukush, the core issue is fashioning a participatory democracy where no ethnic group feels that it has to submit to the brute majority of one faction or another. If the Jirga is allowed to function in an environment free of foreign pressures, the members themselves will be able to decide on the kind of Afghanistan that is to be built. The very fact that some 6.8 million (around 53 percent) of 12.5 million Afghans registered to vote actually participated in the 18 September polls is a good sign.
In Bangladesh, Begum Khaleda Zia’s government completed its fourth year in office, just as Transparency International announced that her country had – for the fifth consecutive year – topped the list of most-corrupt nations. It is time to remind the prime minister that she had fought elections back in 2001 on two planks: containing violence and combating corruption. She has failed on both counts. Thanks to an equally discredited opposition led by Begum Sheikh Hasina, however, no real threat to her government is expected anytime soon – although the Awami League is threatening the BNP-led ruling alliance with the possibility of mass resignations by its Parliament members.
Contrary to the fractured nature of Afghan polity, homogeneity of the ruling elite is the bane of Bangladeshi politics: regardless of their affiliations, the bigwigs of Dhaka society all swear by the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Opposition to the Washington Consensus is conspicuous by its very absence in this teeming country with limited resources. Liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation are extremely beneficial for garment exporters, NGO entrepreneurs and aid industry associates. But what is the public official in any Structural Adjustment Programme country to do to afford health services and education for his children, if not to accept bakshish? Who will tell Transparency International that petty bribes taken by officials give rise to the perception of corruption, rather than its real prevalence? Tthat is the preserve of the Northern multinationals. Let us understand the importance of scale here.
Burma is trying to benefit from the entrepreneurship of the Bangladeshi trading class. If the road-link between Bangladesh and Burma is restored, Dhaka’s commercial farmers will be sure to be taking over fallow tracts across the border and cultivating them on contract from the Burmese military. A buy-back arrangement of some type is currently being dangled, in an attempt to entice the Rangoon junta. Should the arrangement succeed, Burmese brass would have yet another lucrative source of extra income; and one more Southasian country would compromise high principle on the altar of lucre and realpolitik.
Tremors in paradise
Granted, the magnitude of the earthquake (7.6 on the Richter scale) that hit Kashmir in early-October was horrendous. But that does not justify the subsequent neglect of the people suffering in one of the most militarised regions in the world. Outside of conflict, militaries are supposed to wage war on ravages wrought by nature. But when tragedy struck in Kashmir, Pakistani helicopters were too busy serving the needs of their own troops to worry about the suffering of common Kashmiris.
General Hamid Gul, the controversial former head of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has drawn an alarmist parallel. He thinks that the 1971 uprising in then-East Pakistan had a lot to do with the ham-handed way in which the 1970 relief operations were carried out in the flood-ravaged plains of Bengal. Pervez Musharraf and his fellow brass in Islamabad will have a lot of explaining to do as to why it took three days before anything resembling a systematic relief operation could be organised.
But it is true what they say about the silver lining: the thaw in India-Pakistan relations has been long in the making, but the shared tragedy of Kashmir will have speeded up the process of reconciliation. Helicopters in no-fly-zones and cellphone links across the de facto border may sound mundane, but let us recognise acts of daring among the leaders when it does happen. Once the body count is done, the blame is allotted and responsibilities are shouldered, Indian and Pakistani administrators must sit down and devise a joint strategy of relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction in these contested mountains.
Perhaps there is a bit of fatalism among us Southasians – regardless of frontiers or lines of control – that makes us take natural calamities in stride. Or perhaps it is a reliance on the Almighty – when tremors struck Islamabad, participants on a TV talk-show were shown praying until the lights went out. There is nothing wrong with a bit of meek submission to His will, but better preparation to lessen the suffering of the public is unlikely to offend the Omnipresent.
The post-modern monarchy in Nepal is trundling along its carefully charted course of establishing the primacy of the crown in Nepali society and polity. After making sure that the country’s constitution had been turned, twisted and mauled beyond recognition, King Gyanendra commanded that elections be held by April 2007, to validate all of the controversial decisions he had made since the royal takeover of 4 October 2002. A gag ordinance has been simultaneously issued to tame the ebullient media of Kathmandu Valley; the beleaguered press in the countryside, meanwhile, have already been long exercising self-censorship in the face of threats from both the military and militants.
For the moment, the prospects of a sustainable peace in the kingdom appear bleak – although hopes of an extension of the three-month unilateral ceasefire that the Maoists declared in September have not yet subsided. Were the insurgents and mainstream parties to reach a compromise on the nitty-gritty of a republican polity (meaning, minus the king), the oldest state of Southasia may yet emerge as its most vibrant democracy, as well. The vigour of freedom regained, after all, is of a different magnitude than the freedom acquired for the first time around.
A bilateral ceasefire still holds in Sri Lanka, where presidential elections are scheduled for 17 November 2005. If previous experiences are anything to go by, the battle of the ballot box is a time of extreme risk. While campaigning in 1999, President Chandrika Kumaratunga barely survived an attack that killed more than 20 people. Five years earlier, a suicide bomber claimed the life of United National Party candidate Gamini Dissayanaka, along with 50 others. There had been a hope that Sri Lanka had turned the corner and that the polls the next time around would be peaceful. But then, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was assassinated.
Even though upheavals in all parts are more the rule than the exception in Southasia, the trauma brought by surrounding disasters – both natural and manmade – never ceases to be extremely unsettling. But as Alama Iqbal sang long ago in the poem “Taraanaa-e-Hind”, often referred to as India’s second national anthem:
Kuchh baat hai ki hastii mitatii nahin hamaarii
Sadiyo rahaa hai duhman daur-e-zamaan hamaaraa
There is something in Southasians that makes us endure, survive and thrive all over again.