Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Subcontinent: History Repeats Itself in Both India and Pakistan

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Subcontinent: History Repeats Itself in Both India and Pakistan

Article excerpt

THE SUBCONTINENT: History Repeats Itself in Both India and Pakistan

The 23-member National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been elected into power in India and BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee has become the prime minister again. In Pakistan, Mian Nawaz Sharif's elected government has been dismissed through a military coup and General Parvez Musharraf has declared a state of emergency in the country, suspended the Constitution and has become "the chief executive" to set the internal "house in order."

Formation of a democratically elected coalition government in India is nothing new, nor, unfortunately, is a military takeover in Pakistan, though both are fraught with difficulties. However, the subcontinent has learned to live with social, economic and political adversity. It's déjà vu in both of its major countries.


Forced to go back to the voters by a single vote defeat in the Lokh Sabha (lower house of parliament) due to the defection of AIDMK leader Jaylalita from the last coalition government he headed, Bharatiya Janata Party head Atal Bihari Vajpayee emerged strengthened from India's second national election in less than a year. He overcame a seemingly strong election challenge launched by the reorganized Congress party now headed by Sonia Gandhi, Italian-born widow of assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

But when the votes were counted the BJP and its allies had won 298 seats. Congress and its allies had 136 seats, and others 103 seats. The BJP alone had won 182 seats and Congress had won 113. BJP had made neither gains nor losses from its previous standing, but its dominance was reinforced by the weakening of the Congress party, which turned in the poorest performance in its parliamentary history.

Factors within the country that helped the BJP-led NDA to gain a majority include the breakaway of Sharad Pawar from the Congress party and the inability of Sonia Gandhi to shed her foreign image. Vajpayee's personal moderate stance, even as the leader of a right-wing Hindu party, also helped middle-of-the-road voters to stay with the NDA.

Perhaps the biggest numerical difference was made by the Telegu Desham party of Andhra Pradesh that joined the NDA with its crucial 29 seats. Also important was the Vajpayee-led government's success in completely repulsing the Pakistan army-supported incursion of Kashmiri independence fighters into the Kargil area within Indian-controlled Kashmir. The whole affair projected Vajpayee as a strong but rational leader of a nation under external attack.

BJP made its biggest gains in the deep south, where previously it had no political presence of any consequence. This was achieved through alliances with strong regional parties. The same formula was used to capture Orissa, and it made a major inroad in Bihar, where entrenched political leader Lalo Prasad Yadav was defeated. BJP gains in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan were largely due to the mistakes of Congress. Only in Delhi and Himachalpradesh did BJP make gains on its own.

Although the NDA has gained a comfortable majority in the Lokh Sabha, Atal Bihari Vajpayee's task has not been made any easier. Not only must he appease the disparate non-BJP groups to keep them in his coalition, he has to contend with powerful right-wing religious zealots within his own BJP who constantly pull him toward establishment of Hindutva -- land of Hindus.

BJP was catapulted into political ascendancy by the Hindu religious frenzy unleashed in 1991 with the destruction of the historic Babri masjid in Uttar Pradesh by Hindu militants. Unfortunately, the same hard-line Hindu parties -- the Rashtriya Sewak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Shiv Sena and the Bajrang Dal -- still constitute the BJP core. Even a slight tactical climbdown from its extremist platform resulted in a BJP slide in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, from 60 seats in 1998 to 29 today. …

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