August 19, 2002
Elections have been pivotal in the international relations of South Asia as perhaps in no other region of the world. As we gear up for elections in Kashmir and Pakistan, we must see that at crucial moments in our region’s history, elections have signified both opportunities and dangers.
In 1970-71, elections in both India and Pakistan more or less coincided. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman should have become prime minister of a united Pakistan as a result of one election; Indira Gandhi got an unprecedented two-thirds majority in Parliament and became prime minister in the other. Within months, the two countries were plunged into crisis. War and the creation of Bangladesh followed. South Asia’s history might have been quite different if Mujib had been allowed to rule and if Indira had won less decisively.
Five years later, Pakistan and India once again held crucial elections. This time Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was elected to a second term as president of Pakistan. Allegations of electoral rigging eventually brought him down and brought the army back into politics. Mohammed Zia-ul Haq hanged Bhutto in 1979 and ruled Pakistan as a military dictator for the next 11 years. In 1977, Indira Gandhi lost the elections she called after three years of the Emergency. For the first time, India came to be ruled by a non-Congress government at the Centre. India-Pakistan relations improved under the two new governments, until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Janata government’s fall in 1979 ended the detente.
Interestingly, the electoral prospects in Kashmir and Pakistan in many ways rest in the hands of the same person — Pervez Musharraf
Twenty years later, in 1996-97, elections in Pakistan and India were again close together in time. In Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif came back to power in a landslide verdict. He introduced constitutional changes that loosened the hold of the presidency and military and publicly called for better ties with India. After the Kargil war in 1999, he was overthrown by the military under General Pervez Musharraf. In India, the Congress lost power after five years of Narasimha Rao’s rule, and although a National Front government under Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral came to power, it was clear that the BJP was likely to take power sooner rather than later (which they did in early 1998). The Gujral Doctrine and the Lahore Declaration presaged a breakthrough in India’s relations with Pakistan during this period. The 1999 war and Musharraf’s takeover in October 1999 ended the thaw.
Will the Kashmir elections in India in September and the Pakistani polls in October turn out to be as pivotal as these earlier more or less coincident elections? The optimistic view would be that holding these elections must be counted as a gain. Both elections could turn out to be free and fair and lead to a new political dispensation. The National Conference might well be returned to power, but other forces may come to be represented in the state assembly. In Pakistan, the PPP Parliamentarians (PPPP), the PML (Nawaz), and the MQM might, with their electoral understanding, defeat the alliance of small parties fielded by the military.
Pessimists will point to much darker possibilities. Poor voter turnout in the Kashmir elections may discredit the elections. Poll rigging may mar the verdict. The Hurriyat and Third Front may stay away from the electoral process altogether. They may even endorse a boycott of the polls. Militant led violence may increase. In Pakistan, voter turnout will be much healthier than in Kashmir but not as healthy as the generals would like. Rigging may be a factor there as well. The PPP, PML (Nawaz), and MQM electoral adjustment may fall apart. In any case, the public’s disillusionment with these formations may not end. The ‘King’s Party’ cobbled together by the army may do unexpectedly well as a result of rigging as well as public disillusionment with the alternatives.
What will happen to the India-Pakistan relationship if the Kashmiri and Pakistani elections go relatively well? The return of the NC to power with a healthier opposition, one that includes some rebellious Kashmiris, may not make much difference in itself. What is probably crucial is voter turnout, and this promises to be rather low even if it improves upon the 1996 figure. If the PPP-PML-MQM front does well in Pakistan, this may not change things there appreciably. The constitutional changes that Musharraf has brought in will limit the influence of the civilian parties. Pakistan will continue to criticise the elections in Kashmir; and India will continue to return the compliment in respect of the Pakistani elections. India-Pakistan relations will not improve much, but they will not be much worse either.
If the elections go badly in both Kashmir and Pakistan, the situation will however deteriorate. The legitimacy of Indian rule in Kashmir will take another blow, even if it is militant-led disruption of the elections that accounts for electoral failure. The tumult in Kashmir could well increase. In Pakistan, bad elections could simultaneously discredit both the Musharraf regime and the civilian parties and thereby give the extremists an opening. Musharraf and the extremists might well decide to increase the heat in Kashmir to improve their respective domestic prospects. India-Pakistan relations would then be poised on another knife’s edge.
Interestingly, the electoral prospects in Kashmir and Pakistan in many ways rest in the hands of the same person — Pervez Musharraf. Good elections in Kashmir depend largely on his willingness to allow Kashmiris to contest the polls and to vote. Good elections in Pakistan depend even more on him. Failure in both cases will also be his responsibility.
What can India do? It cannot do anything about the elections in Pakistan, but the power to do well by Kashmir is still considerably in its hands. The prime minister’s speech on August 15 is a good beginning. The least the central government can do is clean up electoral rolls, release as many internees in prison as possible, bring in governor’s rule, and facilitate the presence of the foreign media and diplomats during the polls. Finally and most importantly, the prime minister must go to Kashmir to repeat what he said at Red Fort — we have made mistakes but we will make amends.
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