Release Date: September 27, 1999
Eric Margolis, c/o Editorial Department, The Toronto Sun
333 King St. East, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5A 3X5
Fax: (416) 960-4803 -- Press Contact: Eric Margolis

Rumblings On The South Asian Subcontinent

by Eric Margolis

WASHINGTON -- India, the world's largest democracy, completes its final round of national elections this week, a remarkable political and technical accomplishment for vast, disparate nation of 1 billion people speaking some 200 different languages and major dialects.

By contrast, India's neighbor and bitter rival Pakistan is spinning out of control. As rumors surged of an impending military coup against the embattled government of PM Nawaz Sharif, the US is warning Pakistanis against overthrowing the regime by a putsch or by mob action.

First, to India, where 650 million plus voters will likely elect a 23-party coalition led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Sonia Gandhi's trailing Congress Party has rallied in the polls, but internal dissention and widespread unease over Mrs. Gandhi's Italian origins have badly hurt the traditional ruling party.

If Congress fails again to win office, and the BJP returns to power, Sonia Gandhi will probably retire and pass dynastic leadership to her intelligent, telegenic, popular daughter, Priyanka Vadra - whom some hopeful Indians call “the second Indira Gandhi.

Re-election of the BJP coalition means India will continue to flex its military and strategic muscles, further develop its nuclear and space programs, including ICBM's and submarine- launched missiles, and press an assertive foreign policy that worries its smaller neighbors and, ominously, China.

The increasing importance of India’s complex coalition is a sign of trouble to come. No major Indian party can form a government without support of a score of small regional, caste, or personality- based parties. This results in unstable, semi-paralyzed governments whose main energies must be devoted to political horse-trading and pandering to the big egos of small politicians.

But more than just sclerotic government, India's coalition politics is slowly but relentlessly widening already worrisome fissures in the national body politic caused by regionalism, ethnicity, language, religion, and caste. If continued, the trend towards regionalism and localism could eventually undermine the power of the federal government in Delhi, encouraging regional separatism, notably in India's south where resentment against domination of the government by northern Hindi-speakers is strong.

India may be getting a bit wobbly, but compared to chaotic Pakistan, it appears a Himalaya of stability and good government. Violent demonstrations have raged for weeks against PM Sharif, as most Pakistani parties have united in calling for his immediate ouster by fair means or foul.

On Wednesday, Pakistan's former prime minister Benazir Bhutto told me she believed Nawaz Sharif was attempting to destroy the feeble democratic system and become a dictator. “Nawaz is plunging Pakistan into anarchy,” she charged. Bhutto is currently in Washington drumming up support in Congress, the Pentagon, and the State Dept. for a political come-back in Pakistan, a scenario that appears increasingly likely as the Nawaz regime founders.

Last May, Sharif, who has never been popular, and has occasionally shown remarkable ineptitude, first insisted Kashmiri resistance forces that had attacked Indian-ruled Kashmir in the Kargil sector had nothing to do with Pakistan. After the US summoned Sharif to Washington for a public dressing-down, the Pakistani PM ordered the Kashmiri rebels back, thus humiliating himself and his country.

While India crowed with victory, Pakistan received worldwide condemnation for nearly provoking a nuclear war with India, which had massed armored divisions on Pakistan's border, was readying a naval blockade of Karachi, Pakistan's only major port, and had placed its nuclear strike forces on high alert status. India had outsmarted, out-maneuvered, and out-bluffed Pakistan.

While India's economy continues to grow, Pakistan is on the verge of bankruptcy and now totally at the mercy of US and international lenders. Large portions of Pakistan - strife-torn Karachi and the surrounding province of Sind, the tribal Northwest Frontier, and Baluchistan - are barely under government control. Government, political parties, courts and business are swamped by corruption. The army is the only institution in Pakistan that still works and commands at least a modicum of respect from cynical citizens.

Sources in Pakistan and intelligence analysts here in Washington concur that as the Nawaz regime founders, and mobs threaten to seize the main cities, the army generals have been discussing a preventative coup. They have not taken action for fear that Washington would cut off the trickle of foreign aid on which Pakistan depends for life support. Better, they reckon, to reinstall Benazir, who remains very popular in Washington's power circles because of her charm, media skills, and her opposition to conservative Islamic political groups.

Pakistan must not be allowed to sink into political anarchy or, even worse, dissolve into feuding regions. Either event would sorely tempt India - particularly under militant BJP leadership -to intervene in Pakistan the way India's Indira Gandhi did in East Pakistan in 1970-1971, loping off half of Pakistan and turning into Bangladesh. Or grabbing the rest of divided Kashmir. The BJP's wilder fringe has long called for “crushing Pakistan” and reabsorbing it back into Mother India.

Such action, of course, could ignite a nuclear war on the subcontinent. Not surprisingly, Washington has a bad case of South Asian jitters as the tumultuous region lurches towards yet more dangers.

[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]

Copyright © 1999 Eric Margolis - All Rights Reserved
back button