THE tirades against the ‘foreign hand’ having reached a deafening crescendo, we wait for the next act to unfold. But there should be no pretence of suspense. It has been almost seven decades since the opening of the stage play called Pakistan, and every ‘conspiracy’ hatched against our holy guardians by the forces of darkness in India and Afghanistan always turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Given our obsession with our neighbours, the lack of interest in the electoral exercises taking place in both countries boggles the mind. Certainly there are run-of-the-mill geo-strategic analyses doing the rounds, focusing exclusively on the various ‘national security’ implications of projected electoral outcomes.
But surely there’s value in trying to study elections in India and Afghanistan to understand the processes of change at work there? Or to establish more generally what the prognosis is for liberal democracy in the region? If nothing else, those who are tired of our ‘national security’ myopia should recognise the premium of introducing anecdotes about our neighbouring countries’ complexity and internal contradictions to Pakistan’s public realm.
Let’s start with India: It is widely expected that the demagogic BJP leader from Gujrat, Narendra Modi, will become leader of the Lok Sabha when the votes are tallied later this month. The few Pakistanis who have concerned themselves with Indian politics in recent times tend to emphasise Modi’s fascist leanings, that his election is likely to be bad news for the country’s long-suffering Muslim population. None of this is to be disputed. Modi is a rabid and divisive right-winger of the worst kind, and he is undoubtedly going to usher in more political and cultural suffocation for all underprivileged identity groups in Indian society.
But Modi’s is not exclusively a cultural fascism. His expected election to prime minister-ship reflects the intensifying appeal of neo-liberal economic policies in urban India. It should not be forgotten that the BJP was voted out of office almost a decade ago after its electoral slogan of ‘India Shining’ was rejected by poor and low-caste voters. It is coming back to power in a country that has become more urban, slightly richer, and more politically conservative.
Of course anti-incumbency is an important factor in any election, particularly in India. Like all parties that still derive political gains from their social-democratic legacy, the crisis of legitimacy in Congress has deepened over the past decade due to its accession to neo-liberal policies. It is possible that it will rise again from the proverbial ashes in five years, but it is likely to position itself closer to India’s urban middle classes than the rural poor that have always constituted its major source of support.
The situation in Afghanistan is, needless to say, very different. First, the presidential system of government means distinct sociological and political implications of electoral outcomes. Second, the imperative of establishing a stable polity in the face of imperialist war and ethno-linguistic divisions overrides concerns that would otherwise predominate in bourgeois elections.
Both candidates who will contest the run-off (which was called because no candidate secured the necessary 50pc of polled votes) represent different political and sociological trends; Abdullah Abdullah enjoys greater support in non-Pakhtun areas of the north and is considered the representative of the Northern Alliance; Ashraf Ghani is more acceptable to Pakhtun majorities in the south. Perhaps more importantly, both have cultivated substantial links with Western governments, including Washington, the latter arguably still the major player in the post-2014 dispensation.
To be sure, what unites the likely victors of elections in both countries is an unflinching commitment to global status quo. And therein lies the rub. Electoral majorities may be cultivated through a variety of ostensibly democratic means but it is increasingly debatable whether or not the mandate that these majorities acquire is meaningful in the face of a virtual dictatorship of global capital. I do not wish to suggest that there is no value to the electoral exercise: it is of immense significance in both in India and Afghanistan, particularly for the politically weakest segments of society inasmuch as the ballot promises equality for all, at least in a formal sense.
But there is a clear and ever-present danger that, to use the words of the Indian dissident Arundhati Roy, democracy has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning. Contemporary Latin America confirms that the best chance of reclaiming democracy from the so-called ‘free market’ and geo-political winds is through the formation of regional blocs that promote the needs of the people rather than the imperative of profit and power. One can only hope it doesn’t take us another seven decades to learn this lesson.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.