Gilgit-Baltistan: Militarism and Democracy

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By Jawed Naqvi

PEACE activists opposed to the nuclear weapons tests and other aggressive announcements by India last week should take heart from the truth that in democracies jingoism doesn’t always reward its protagonists.

Yes, militarist quests could become a means to subvert democracy itself, which is another story.

Take President Obama’s sabre-rattling in the far corners of the globe, for example, a volte-face from his early promise of peace, or the clutch of bloody wars waged by his predecessors. They had to be rooted in a subversion of the flaunted American democracy.

We need not look beyond Messrs Edward Snowden’s and Julian Assange’s cargo of bald facts to figure out how genuine democracies must become opaque to their people before embarking on militarist adventures.

As democrats go, Winston Churchill, Golda Meir, Jimmy Carter, Indira Gandhi, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee were some of the victims of successful or failed military or militarist projects launched. They were rejected by the people they sought to woo.

Yes, there were apparent exceptions. Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher are thought to have led popular military enterprises, but scanning their electoral successes reveals a different possibility.

Their popularity may have been linked more to their tackling of troubled domestic economies (the means notwithstanding) rather than on their gambling on, say, the Falklands war or on mopping up the Second World War with a nuclear assault on Japan.

Before looking at the electoral failure of Churchill and others on the heels of their fabled military leadership, it would help to consider a few facts closer to home.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose favourite military pastime was to fight the ragtag Maoists at home, may have been pushed by his advisors to bluff his way out of a diplomatic pickle, a crisis triggered recently by an unexplained incident at the Pakistan border.

If the Indian claim of Pakistan’s culpability is right, then the Pakistani security establishment and the right-wing Indian opposition have acted to give the Indian prime minister a bloody nose. This could be their way of reminding him and his Pakistani counterpart not to get too enthusiastic about a proposed meeting in New York next month.

To add to his woes, Dr Singh’s Congress party increasingly finds itself locked in competitive jingoism with the right-wing opposition, which in turn strikes an uncanny resonance with the leftist opposition strangely enough.

Last week’s unsheathing of India’s first nuclear submarine, clubbed with the inauguration of the country’s much headlined aircraft carrier and the test of a nuclear capable (and Pakistan-specific) surface-to-surface missile may have been Dr Singh’s way of getting even with his jingoist critics at home.

If he looked over his shoulders, however, he would find popular characters from history laid low on the battlefield of jingoism, some familiar faces, others less well known.

Indira Gandhi had to hitch her military victory over Pakistan to a slogan of fighting poverty at home to sweep the polls in 1972. When she was convinced it was her military prowess that got her the votes, she tried her luck with a nuclear test in 1974. Next year she was forced to suspend democracy, and when she revived it two years later the people she sought to woo rejected her.

Mr Vajpayee carried out his own set of nuclear tests in May 1998, his government declaring China as the reason. His party was routed in the next tranche of elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi. It has never retrieved Delhi from the Congress.

It was then that Vajpayee trudged to Lahore with a peace proposal but it was already too late. An ally had pulled the rug from under his feet. Vajpayee lost a trust vote in parliament.

The Kargil war is thought to have helped his lame duck government’s return to power, but that was only with the help of a desperately assembled coalition, never on his own steam. His 2002 military deployment against Pakistan added to his woes with the tired voters who dumped his party in the 2004 elections.

The image of prime minister Narasimha Rao in his dhoti and angavastram kicking up clouds of dust aboard the homebuilt Arjun battle tank at a trial in early 1996 was not good enough to give him a second mandate in elections a few months later.

Rajiv Gandhi may have grabbed some military advantage in the Siachen Glacier but his unprecedented majority in parliament was handed a rude jolt in the next election.

Similarly, Z.A. Bhutto may have offered to drastically compromise on the quality of the nation’s tiffin box in order to get the bomb, but when the military took charge of his destiny there were few on the street to protest.

Churchill’s defeat at the hustings soon after his popularity rating touched an unparalleled 83pc came as a shock to the world, but his drubbing had followed an established logic.

Golda Meir won brownie points when she disguised herself as an Arab for a failed secret meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah. But when she won the 1973 war against her Arab foes, she was forced to quit as prime minister. As president, Jimmy Carter may have scripted the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, but he lost the election in 1980.

With this hindsight of history, it would be advisable for Dr Singh to heed the angry peace activists rather than ignore their warnings.

As the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace reminded India the other day, brandishing “these tools of mass destruction as guarantees of national security while ignoring the issues of real safety, security and well-being of the Indian people demonstrates a perverse pathology”.

Naming the submarine ‘Arihant’ after a holy figure from Jainism which stands for peace is yet another cruel irony similar to ‘the Buddha smiled’ code for the 1974 nuclear test.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

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