There were three significant happenings this week up and down the vertical axis of the Indian Subcontinent.
Up in the North, Pakistani troops battled the Taliban in Swat. As the week closed they had just begun the battle for Mingora, the capital town of the picturesque vale.
Meanwhile down South on a coastal strip along the Indian Ocean, the Sri Lankan Army was concluding what is being called Eelam War IV, the final chapter ending in the elimination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and the killing of its legendary chief, Prabhakaran. It marked the end of a government military operation that matched the LTTE’s own ruthlessness and savagery.
In the middle was India, electing its 15th parliament, fifty seven years since its first. The Congress party, which governed the last five years in a tenuous coalition, was returned to power with increased numbers, while its opponents on the nominal right and left were both shorn of seats.
It was Winston Churchill who remarked that the United States could usually be relied upon to do the right thing... after having tried everything else. The same remark might apply to Pakistan with this alteration, "after having secured promises of billions in additional aid". Following several months of dilly-dallying — even an accommodation with the Taliban — essentially letting the outlaws run the judicial system in Swat, Pakistan finally moved. Whether nudged by world outrage at the YouTube video of a young lady in Swat being publicly whipped by Taliban goons, or whether as a result of the latest administration of the ancient American patent medicine for Pakistan (one part threat, four parts blandishment) the army appeared to shake off its post-Waziristan funk and move with dispatch and determination against the insurgents. Like the military operations in Sri Lanka, this has resulted in large numbers of refugees (1.4 million per one report) fleeing their homes to escape the fighting. The devastation of the fight for Mingora is yet to come. And there is something unseemly against an army being used against one’s own population, a fact likely to stick in many craws in the months and years to come. But as with Indira Gandhi and Bhindranwale, sometimes the biggest punishment is simply having to eat one’s own cooking.
Widespread celebration all over Sri Lanka greeted the Sri Lankan president’s announcement that the LTTE had been crushed, and that peace had returned to the island paradise (incidentally, the word ’serendipity’ comes from an old name for Sri Lanka). The civil war there has continued for nearly 30 years. Lincoln concluded his in four. But that is as far as the analogy may be pushed. Compared to the complexities of the Lankan problem, the American Civil war was a piffle. Tamils, though a minority, make up over 25% of the population. They were for long part of the establishment until they were purged by the Sinhalese. Unlike blacks in the US, Tamils have inhabited Sri Lanka for over a millennium, some say even longer than the Sinhalese. And unlike the overt crime of slavery, in the US, Tamils in Sri Lanka have for fifty years been subject to a below-the-radar apartheid, punctuated by pogroms connived at by the Sinhalese establishment. The LTTE was a reaction to this, in the end an overreaction. But if the Tamil’s status in Sri Lanka is at all recognized widely and on its way to being addressed, Prabhakaran for all his crimes and follies deserves a due measure of credit. It is trite to invoke Lincoln’s words about binding the wounds, but it is no less true for that.
Like Sherlock Holmes’ curious incident of the dog in the night, the Indian elections were remarkable for what did not happen.
But first a brief stop to take in the enormity of what did happen. According to Australian Broadcasting Corp., over 700 million people cast their ballots. Even if that figure is off by 50% that is still more than the entire population of any country other than India or China! The exercise took over a month, with few allegations of malpractice or fraud; the results were known the same day as counting began and generally accepted as valid. The biggest festival in the world of representative democracy took place once more, a resounding success.
Now to what did not happen. The Indian people refused to fall for the bogeyman of terrorism, scoffing at the vote for me and I’ll keep you safe meme. They had every opportunity to do so. The first national elections in the US after 9-11 took place over three years later; the elections in India were barely six months after the Bombay (Mumbai) massacres, with memories far more raw. While the twin tower collapses were a 10-second blip, the confrontation in Bombay was elaborate, shown in real time for over three days. Unlike the impersonal sight of planes crashing into buildings, here there were gun-toting terrorists systematically combing for victims, while being shown in photo and reel. And unlike the Kerry campaign which refused to challenge the Bush administration on its abject failure on 9-11, the opposition BJP in India made the Bombay carnage in particular and ’security’ in general a central plank of its platform. It ran an openly communal campaign, including a prominent candidate implying he would slash the arms of muslims. The Congress Party paid to use the popular theme song from Slumdog Millionaire, Jai Ho (May we be Victorious). The BJP, the wags said, countered with the slogan Bhai Ho (Let there be Fear). For all its shrillness its position in Parliament slid from 138 in the previous assembly to 116 in the new one. Even in Bombay itself, where the Taj Mahal Hotel burned for days, the Congress swept the BJP, winning all six seats!
But let us not forget something else that did not happen. There was no let up from the neo-liberalism that has bewitched Indian political parties from the communists to the ultra-right for nearly two decades. Whether the Congress or the BJP is in power makes little difference in this department; indeed big business in India and abroad have found both parties quite adequate thank you, and ’liberalization’ has proceeded apace under either.
The fate of the Left parties was perhaps the most pitiable. As some analysts have observed, it was they, during their earlier presence in the ruling coalition, who saved it from rushing to throw banking and insurance wide open to international finance. This ’tardiness’ served to protect Indians from the full buffet (no pun intended) of the global financial meltdown. But by this time the Left had long left the treasury benches, having parted company with the Congress last summer on the issue of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Public memory being short, the Left was hard put to gain any mileage from its contribution in preventing a disaster that did not happen. So too was the case with an innovative rural unemployment program where a large investment was made directly to the village poor. The Congress thus gained from implementing the Left’s agenda, while the Left itself was left behind. There is a pithy Telugu saying which captures its predicament to perfection, but unfit to print, sadly.
The euphoria of the elections is over, and India’s problems loom as large as ever — a growing gap between rich and poor, an unceasing pageant of farmer suicides, poverty and malnutrition and slums, a simultaneous hardening of the urban heart. And oh, did we mention the Naxal Swat(h) — the tribal belt which spans the states of Jharkhand, Orissa, Chattisgarh and Andhra? Here, as the Newsweek correspondent Sudip Mazumdar wrote recently, the writ of the government is zero to non-existent, where kidnappings (Mazumdar’s own brother-in-law was seized) and mutilations are as prevalent as in Swat — only not in the name of religion but in the brisk business of extortion. Add that old reliable, Kashmir, throw in the North East, and recall the report that some 150 of the newly elected MP’s have some criminal connection and you can see why Indians have before them a full plate, of problems if not food.
Still, India’s well-wishers have something to cherish and celebrate in the wonder that is Indian democracy, even while intoning "there but for the grace of God..." as they look around the neighborhood. The grace of God? Perhaps... But that of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru? Without a doubt.
Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living in the West Coast. He may be reached at email@example.com.