Balancing compulsions

Plenty to do: Asif Ali Zardari (left) and Manmohan Singh.   | Photo Credit: Photos: AFP, Shanker Chakravarty


A look at the political scenario in the subcontinent in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

Political decision-makers are besieged by compulsions more than easy choices. Dr. Manmohan Singh in Delhi or Asif Ali Zardari across the border are compelled and driven more by domestic forces than by foreign policy needs of the time. Both have weak political institutions at home and a plethora of socio-economic problems made worse by the global financial meltdown. Both have insurgency on their hands and religious fanaticism to cope with.

Mr. Zardari’s problems are more difficult to tackle than Dr. Singh’s. Pakistan never was, and still is not, a democracy in true terms during the last 60 years. India was, and still is, a secular democracy and a republic with its States enjoying a good measure of autonomy. Pakistan is dominated by its mullahs and its military, who sometimes act in collusion. It also has another powerful force in its drug and arms-smuggling mafias; and our own multi-billionaire Dawood Ibrahim lives in Karachi and though once a much-wanted Indian criminal, he cannot be touched by India, because many Pakistani leaders have been obliged by him.

Our democracy, since its inception, has failed to evolve into a two-party system. It has only arrived at coalition governments both at the centre and in the States. A phenomenal rise in regional parties, political infighting and defection politics and the legitimisation of criminal elements in the parliament and the State legislatures have turned our ballot-box beliefs into a caricature. Unaccounted money greases the wheels of electoral politics and ultimately it is the bottom third of our population that is below the poverty line that suffers.

Populist trends

Populism is another growing force in India that has brought into play pseudo-political or bogus cultural gangsters posing as senas of various brands. Very often, they are fronts for political parties, serving as their dirty jobs departments. Sometimes they are mercenary armies on auction for any political party willing to pay the price.

Then there is a corrupt bureaucracy and a police force with rogue elements in India that we all have experience of but no ideas on cleansing. We do have a system and so does our neighbour Pakistan. Our systems are different and have evolved differently since 1947. Our other neighbour, Bangladesh has now a system dangerously resembling Pakistan’s. Our smaller neighbour Nepal has moved from being a Hindu religious monarchy to being a democracy with a Maoist government. Extremist ideologies, Islamic and Hindu fundamentalism, regional chauvinism, tribal backwardness and exploitation, casteism and communalism and poverty are causes of increasing discontent in India. They have made our future uncertain and we can no longer take promises of development and progress for granted.

The recent terrorist attacks on Mumbai have caused public fury in India, compelling Dr. Singh and his Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee to adopt fierce postures. Mr. Zardari has been, on the other hand, forced to put on the traditional Pakistani mask of aggrieved incomprehension. Mr. Zardari is a fledgling politician surrounded by far more wily diehards and hawks. He is in the unenviable position of having to answer not only India but also to placate international opinion including that of the Americans.

Different priorities

The incoming American President Mr. Obama would also face policy compulsions in his relationships with Pakistan and India with the crucial factor of Afghanistan in view. The United States cannot pull out of Afghanistan but, on the contrary, may have to commit more troops there. Obama cannot alienate Pakistan though he may, in the long run, have to bet on India as a more powerful and democratic ally in the South Asian region. George Bush’s policy was guided by American corporate interests in already tapped oil-producing regions in West Asia as well as untapped ones with vast potential in Central Asia. However, Obama’s top priority would be to try and quickly heal an ailing economy rather than try and plug holes in the military and foreign policies he has inherited.

Dominoes effect

The terrorist attack on Mumbai claimed among its immediate political victims the Maharashtra State Home Minister R.R. Patil followed by Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh himself. Such a dominoes effect was inevitable. Politicians in Maharashtra never seem to realise that the city contributes about 40 per cent of our GDP and that it is one of the top four megapolises of the world with a cosmopolitan ethnic and cultural mix. Maharashtrians themselves seem to be moving out of the city to its farther suburbs rather than into it. This is the main reason why the ratio of Marathi speakers to other language speakers has been increasingly tilting in favour of the non-Marathi population. Bal and Uddhav Thackeray or Raj Thackeray and their followers already know that Thane rather than Shivaji Park is where their “Marathi Manoos” has moved. Their assorted backers in Central and North Mumbai are middle-class and upper-caste white-collar workers, blue-collar workers, small entrepreneurs, shop-keepers, and the original OBC of Mumbai such as the Kolis and the Bhandaris. They can now raise their little guerrilla armies only out of the Dalits and the OBCs dwelling in the shanty towns. With their dynastic policy of not letting leadership grow out of their rank and file of followers, their political future grows dimmer by the day.

The author is a Marathi poet and writer.