As with Zia, US now needs Modi

Published June 27, 2023
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

JUNE 25 marked the 48th anniversary of the suspension of democracy by Indira Gandhi in India, for which she cited internal disturbances as the trigger. Comparisons are in order of her 1975-77 emergency rule that lasted for all of 21 months, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nine years so far of a right-wing regime busy dismantling India’s secular democracy for a Hindu supremacist alternative.

The sowing of ethnic and religious discord among Indians as a strategy to undermine India’s syncretic traditions has taken a debilitating toll on Manipur as it earlier did in Jammu and Kashmir where a wedge was sought to be driven between people. Elsewhere, former JNU student Umar Khalid just finished 1,000 days in Modi’s prison as have many other dissidents and journalists, way beyond the time spent as Mrs Gandhi’s quarries.

But let’s also see if Modi’s rise as an ally of the West bears resemblance to another subversion of democracy in South Asia, when the military dictator Ziaul Haq usurped power in Pakistan and imposed a puritanical theocratic order. Recent discussions on Modi’s state visit to the US missed the precedent. While Zia’s role in creating a monstrosity would soon show up as the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the US hand in the Pakistani enterprise remains less discussed.

As Pakistanis were handed falsehoods about the imminent restoration of democracy, its military ruler hanged the deposed prime minister and became a geopolitical plank to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. The nexus became a significant factor in the eventual fall of the Soviet empire.

The question arises particularly after Modi’s state visit last week at President Joe Biden’s invitation whether, as with Zia in the 1970s-80s, he was also being courted to don a role for the US, with a view to somehow weaken China.

Is the Indian slow march to collusion with the US not palpable in what is being described as the new Cold War? If the answer is ‘it is’, and that’s the role expected from India under Modi’s watch, the hullaballoo about the US betraying its widely touted commitment to democracy sounds untenable. What questions Modi was asked about the backsliding of democracy under his watch at a very visible press conference with Biden or how he parried them was of little consequence.

The elephant in the room was US complicity in the subversion of democracy yet again, the nature of the beast. The question to Modi should have been posed to Biden. Tall claims came a cropper, didn’t they, in the US desertion of Afghanistan that left the devastated country to the mercy of the misogynistic Taliban who were waiting to take the catch for 20 years.

Why should the prospects of a Hindu rashtra in India bother the American state if the creation of religious bigots in an erstwhile reasonably progressive Kabul, where women in the 1970s went to universities, and girls studied with boys, didn’t prick anyone’s conscience?

The elephant in the room was US complicity in the subversion of democracy yet again, the nature of the beast.

There’s a periodic reminder both within the Indian political discourse and outside, and it springs up in June every year, how Indira Gandhi tinkered with democracy and how vain her emergency rule was.

On the other hand, Zia’s 11-years of tyrannical rule as a widely cheered Western spearhead in South Asia is mostly remembered for celebrating the demise of the USSR. Zbigniew Brzezinski exulted with precisely that emotion.

What were the disturbances that Mrs Gandhi cited to suspend democracy? The religious revivalist Jamaat-i-Islami and the Hindu revanchist RSS became conjoined twins among her targets, together with Ram Manohar Lohia’s ‘socialists’ led by George Fernandes. Pro-China communist groups, chiefly Jyoti Basu’s comrades, were also in her cross hairs.

The pro-Moscow communist party and Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena supported the emergency. Moreover, when she reinstated democracy and held elections in 1977, the southern half of India backed her though her party was uprooted in the north.

A global case is evident for Modi’s rise and his embrace by the US. But the global context for India’s tryst with Mrs Gandhi’s emergency is usually not acknowledged with similar ease. Was Indira Gandhi not responding to a Cold War threat perception assessed by a newly converted Cold War partisan?

In other words, Mrs Gandhi’s 1971 defence pact with Leonid Brezhnev attracted an unpublishable insult from Richard Nixon. Henry Kissinger adlibbed with expletives that were only a shade worse against Indians, generally. The bile was gushing. And when Kissinger did finally apologise for his choice of words, he referred to the Cold War as the ruse.

Indeed, it was the post-Vietnam humiliation syndrome for the US, when Kissinger was handed a condolence award, the Nobel, which his Vietnamese interlocutor for the 1973 accord, Le Duc Tho, gracefully turned down. This was also a time when Beijing and Washington would jointly put a ‘string of pearls’ around the solitary pro-Soviet South Asian country, India.

The newly created Bangladesh was shaping into a Moscow client when a military coup eliminated Mujibur Rehman and most of his family members on Aug 15, 1975, less than two months into Mrs Gandhi’s emergency.

The coup turned the anti-India face of politics into a supplication of China and the US. Pakistan had laid the ground for the Mao Zedong-Richard Nixon handshake that flourished nicely until the Obama presidency saw Hillary Clinton crafting the Pivot to Asia, whose reverberations continue to be felt beyond China and the US.

Why is Biden counting on Modi, when Manmohan Singh or A.B. Vajpayee were equally pro-US? Democracies don’t work as great allies in imperialist ventures. Tony Blair tried and was hauled over the coals by his own parliament.

Pakistan’s parliament vetoed the West-backed invitation to send troops into Yemen, and Vajpayee could not send Indian troops to Iraq, fearing a coalition backlash. Modi is a safer candidate to deliver the goods, if he can.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2023

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