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,
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
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
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
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
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
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