LOOK at it dispassionately. The world, led by the United States, has agreed to accept the deeply misogynistic Taliban as the next rulers in Afghanistan, reneging on lofty promises made to Afghan womenfolk as well as the country’s ethnic minorities. On what grounds then can one expect a different yardstick from the self-proclaimed guardians of democracies for other countries, for example, India, or even Pakistan?
So many of our friends in Pakistan are struggling for more democratic space than they find under Imran Khan. That’s what their counterparts in India are fighting for, hoping to deny Narendra Modi a third term in 2024 and in the short term to defeat him in key state polls next year. Marvel at the irony the hectoring world throws at us. Pakistan is facing severe financial scrutiny linked to its progress (or failure) with the fumigation of terror groups in the country. The same world has quietly put a world champion of ethnic and religious violence — the Afghan Taliban — in Pakistan’s care.
Such realities are innately offensive and difficult to swallow. In India, when anti-Muslim pogroms were in full cry in Gujarat in 2002 under then chief minister Modi’s watch, did the US utter a word in protest? As far as one can remember ambassador Robert Blackwill, representing George W. Bush, didn’t lift a finger leave alone visit Gujarat to comfort the victims, not that he was sleeping at the wheel. Following a violent incident in Jammu and Kashmir, which the Indian government described as an act of terror, Mr Blackwill was issuing forth his strongest condemnations against terrorism. But he remained scrupulously silent on Gujarat. Some laughably call it pragmatism, but that’s how it works.
A fatal flaw in democracies is that they may not always suit the needs of free markets.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in the saddle in Delhi, which shielded Mr Modi from deeper international censure. When Manmohan Singh took over from Vajpayee, Modi’s US visa was promptly cancelled followed by other countries, but not China. Pragmatism.
Now, under Modi’s leadership, India is a member of the Quad, supposedly a group of four democracies out to tame authoritarian China. Some even call the group Nato of the Pacific. There’s a larger factor protecting Modi from global disapproval — his two main corporate supporters. The Ambani brothers were exclusive invitees — one each at the Bush and Clinton inaugural. Obama was Modi’s guest twice. China of late invites an opposite approach. The world tried to teach China a trick or two in capitalism and China got itself a PhD in the theory and practice of capitalism. This was not part of the script and there’s global discomfort all round.
Barring China and Russia, the two countries contrived to remain in adversarial stand-off with the world, for a variety of reasons, every other non-democratic system is kosher provided it keeps faith with the free market. During the Cold War the tussle was projected as a contest between democracies and authoritarianism, the predatory nature of capitalism neatly masked. Soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, the preferred term was deftly changed to ‘free market democracies’.
If, God forbid, one has to choose between the two, free markets would override democracy hands down. An illustration was right there. Donald Trump’s indulgence of the killing of a Saudi dissenter was a crude example of an otherwise concealed nexus between rogue wealth and lawless plunder that drives world economies. The system has its unconscionable rules. Afghan Taliban are agreeable, but the Mynamar military is not. There wasn’t a whiff of democracy in Hong Kong under British rule; after its 1997 handover to China the terms of endearment changed.
Against this self-absorbed and self-obsessed global backdrop, it is meaningless to think of any respite coming to the besieged Kashmiris in the Valley from any foreign shores. There was a time when the US embassy in Delhi was a second home for Kashmiri dissidents, and chiefly for the Hurriyat group. The equation changed overnight after the Cold War ended. Ditto for Palestinians. After the Shah’s ouster, the Saudis stepped up as the US anchor in the region. They quickly led a call to recognise Israel at the Arab League summit in 1981. Iraq, Syria, Libya and Marxist Yemen opposed the move. All four were destroyed after the USSR broke up but not before the Saudi deal was accepted in a dressed-up format in Oslo.
A fatal flaw in democracies is that they may not always suit the needs of free markets. The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas were elected by every possible definition of democracy, in Egypt and Gaza respectively. Before that Muslim nationalists were elected in Algeria. Their victories were annulled, not very different from the Anglo-American coup staged in the 1950s against Iran’s elected former prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. He had nationalised the oil industry.
To crush the Muslim Brotherhood and keep its leaders in jail, the Saudis have bankrolled Gen Sisi of Egypt. Earlier, Riyadh helped destroy Kuwait but used Saddam Hussein to do the hatchet job. Kuwait was resented (like Qatar today) by the Saudis for its liberal ethos in which Palestinian migrants played a role in setting up a nascent parliament. The parliament was seen as a threat to Riyadh and other feudal heads. Margaret Thatcher had her own reasons to frown at Kuwait. She forced the emir to return 26 per cent of shares Kuwait had bought in British Petroleum.
The recent meeting of Kashmiri leaders with Prime Minister Modi has triggered considerable speculation. Was it linked to Afghanistan? Was it international pressure? The idea is far-fetched. Only India’s supreme court or Indian voters can change the current order in Kashmir. And Indian people alone can bring all round relief by changing the government in New Delhi. That’s where Sharad Pawar’s assertion that no opposition campaign against Modi can be successful without involving the Congress party is the best news in recent days for the return of democracy to India.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2021