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Democracy and autocracy, subcontinent-ishtyle

By Rajeev Srinivasan
November 05, 2007 13:33 IST
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The chatterati in India are in a tizzy, accompanied by much wailing and beating of breasts, because General Musharraf declared an emergency in Pakistan. But this long-expected event is as meaningless as the recent landslide 'victory' of General Musharraf in the presidential polls because the status quo ante will continue without interruption: rule by the ISI.

There is no reason to get concerned about this cosmetic change. Pakistan, one might argue, does not matter anyway, and a recent column in The Washington Post by an Iranian financier called explicitly for its dissolution. It is a failing State with no self-image, or reason for existence, other than being 'not-India.' They exhibit this periodically by destroying yet another bit of Indian civilisation, most recently by blowing up a three-meter-high 7th century CE Buddha in Swat.

Swat, incidentally, has certain parallels with Kashmir. It is a former tourist paradise, now wracked by fundamentalist violence. Terrorists have started attacking Musharraf's army, for which they have been dubbed 'insurgents' by the obliging media. I get it: Islamic terrorists who are pals of Musharraf are 'freedom-fighters.' Islamic terrorists who oppose him are 'insurgents.' Very clear distinction.

Musharraf, America's favourite dictator, will rule on, until he ceases to be useful to them. Given the history of Pakistan's civilian rulers (eg, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who famously promised to 'eat grass' to acquire nuclear weapons), there is no reason to be enthused about the pretenders to the throne: Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. I am reminded of Salman Rushdie's cutting portrayal of Benazir Bhutto in what may be his most insightful book, the under-appreciated Shame, about the absurdity of Pakistan.

Sharif was dour and the ISI kept him in the dark about what was really going on. Benazir, on the other hand, has always been colorful. Charming and shrill by turns, she ran circles around the pallid and stuffy old men in Delhi last time around, and they would be no match for her if she were to come back to power again.

One might even argue that Musharraf (even as dictator) is better from an Indian perspective than these mercurial civilians. At least Musharraf is a dependable, single-minded, consistent, and known, villain. It must be admitted, too, that Musharraf has accomplished a great deal for his country under trying circumstances. He has run with the hare (the Taliban) and hunted with the hound (the Americans) in a breathtaking display of sleight-of-hand. He has managed to turn a serious situation (Richard Armitage threatening to bomb Pakistan 'into the Stone Age' after 9/11) into a cornucopia of American and Saudi largesse.

This is more than can be said of India's ruling politicians. None of them has done anything for India so far as I can see. Anything positive that happens in India happens despite the so-called leaders: wherever they have ceased to interfere, Indians have done well. There is a clear 'Leadership Penalty.' For the latest example of pork-barrel politics, see the BBC's September 26 report India job scheme 'disappointing'on how the much-ballyhooed rural employment scheme is an enormous waste of money, which goes straight into the pork-barrel for the cadres.

A strutting Musharraf, short-sighted and tactical commando though he might be, is certainly displaying more leadership than India's powers-that-be. So maybe Musharraf deserves to stick around. After all, who are his biggest opponents? Lawyers! Surely William Shakespeare had a point when he suggested, 'The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.' (Note to the humour-impaired: I am not suggesting any violence, merely quoting the poet.)

India's journalists must be delighted, especially the fellow who promised Musharraf a few years ago that he and his fellow journalists would deliver a government in India that would be to Musharraf's liking.

Over in Dhaka, the military rulers are still rather popular, as they have put an end to the Two-Begum Circus. And in the case of Begum Zia, a fundamentalist bigot. Being rid of two such characters is, not surprisingly, a relief to the person on the street.

In Nepal, the Communists are carrying on with their usual little charades: Pretending to be interested in elections just so they can buy time to build up their armed power to eventually take over, line up their opponents and shoot them, just as all Communists have done whenever they came to power anywhere.

Now let's move to that other stronghold of democracy in the Indian subcontinent, Bangalore. If Musharraf is a Three-Ring Barnum and Bailey Circus, namma own Deve Gowde is a most innovative Cirque du Soleil; or as someone suggested, it is the 'Karnataka nataka.' The man is brilliant at coming up with new and unusual excuses for not vacating the chair. I particularly admire his chutzpah and epidermal fortitude. Most rhinoceroses would be put to shame.

The JD(S) simply reneged on its agreement with its coalition partner, in a repeat of a previous feat. There must have been a number of calculations behind this behaviour -- and I can only conjecture about them. One is that Deve Gowda expected to ally with the Congress and continue to rule Karnataka. Another is that he expected to do well in a possible mid-term poll. He perhaps didn't anticipate the alacrity with which the Governor decided to rule.

The final, and most saddening, possibility is that Deve Gowda expects that there will be no negative consequences to his actions because the public is an ass. Such a person who cavalierly abandons any commitment expects to brazenly go to the hustings and make more promises. This implies complete contempt for the intelligence, not to speak of the memory, of the masses. This level of derision is a very poor advertisement for the peculiar animal known as 'democracy' that prevails in India.

The Congress has been especially responsible for the perversion of democratic ideals in India. The slippery slope started with the EMS Namboodiripad ministry's dismissal in 1957 in Kerala using dubious excuses, and the slippery slope has continued apace for the last fifty years. I am beginning to forget the list of elections they have messed with just in the last few years: there are so many -- Jharkhand, Goa, Bihar... and now, Karnataka.

The Congress is following on this with the antics of the governor in Bangalore: His intent, apparently, is to ensure that President's Rule (read UPA rule) continues in the state by hook or by crook. The UPA's (that is, really the Congress's) definition of 'democracy' is indistinguishable from an autocracy, just as its ally the Communists have defined 'democracy' as 'one man, one vote, one time.'

These worthies must be impressed by Musharraf throwing all pretense to the winds, and calling a dictatorship a dictatorship. It is likely that the Congress would just love to follow suit, but they are a little cautious because they got burned the last time -- Indira Gandhi's experience with the Emergency.

India, and its neighbours (although Musharraf has suddenly eschewed hypocrisy), are giving democracy a bad name. In none of these nations has democracy been anything more than a charade and a hoax. The correct name for what goes on is 'kleptocracy' -- rule by thieves. Or perhaps it is even a 'kakistocracy' -- rule by the very worst possible people.

Comments welcome at my blog at

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Rajeev Srinivasan