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New Year’s Memo to South Asia: Don’t Trust Everyone
"There is one safeguard known generally to the wise

New Year’s Memo to South Asia: Don’t Trust Everyone

"There is one safeguard known generally to the wise

“There is one safeguard known generally to the wise, which is an advantage and security to all, but especially to democracies as against despots. What is it? Distrust.”

This maxim of Athenian orator and statesman Demosthenes (384 – 322 BC) can serve as a New Year’s message to millions in South Asia.

As they ring out 2009 and ring in 2010, the people of four countries of the Indian subcontinent, in particular, must remind themselves of the need to distrust forces that pretend to be friends of their democracy.

From Pakistan, caught in a political maelstrom, comes the first illustration, one of the most obvious importance and interest to international observers. The warning should ring out louder and clearer in this case for coming in the wake of the second anniversary of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination on December 27.

In her martyrdom, Benazir proved more than a match, in the immediate context, for the assassins who were trying to kill hopes for democracy, too. An endangered general election had to be held eventually, and the results constituted a popular rebuff to the military-propped regime of Pervez Musharraf and the religious parties rallying around him. Benazir’s Pakistan People’s Party came to power with Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) as the second-largest bloc in the parliament.

The people, however, were to discover that they had only won the first round. The election left the enemies of democracy still alive and kicking – as well as conspiring. The twelve months since then have, of course, seen a surge of terrorism, but a more serious threat to democracy has come from the machinations of militarists.

As in many other instances elsewhere, the conspiracy aimed at toppling the elected government before its time has come here in an ultra-democratic guise. The plot is thickening currently as a politically selective crusade against corruption.

The hyper-democratic camp has been howling for President Asif Ali Zardari’s blood since December 16, when Pakistan’s Supreme Court struck down the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) of October 2007 and ordered consequential relief. As president, of course, Zardari enjoys constitutional immunity from action on the basis of the court order, but pressure is being mounted for his resignation on moral and political grounds.

The NRO, issued by former President Musharraf, did withdraw a slew of corruption charges against Benazir and Zardari to pave the way for her return to Pakistan and participation in the election. The ordinance, issued with the well-known approval of Washington and Pakistan’s army, however, also benefited over 8,000 others.

Says eminent Pakistani writer and journalist Mohammed Hanif: “Even if all the allegations about her corruption and arrogance are true, one should keep in mind that she was active in politics for 30 years, out of which she was in power only for four and a half years. The rest of the time she struggled against two of the most well entrenched military dictators in the region (General Zia ul-Haq and Musharraf) …”

Adds Hanif: “The reason we don’t see very many dossiers on the financial corruption during General Zia and General Musharraf’s regimes is that when Bhutto was in power the intelligence agencies went into overdrive documenting or sometimes inventing her misdemeanors. When the generals or their cronies are in power all the intelligence leaks just dry up.”

Brave Pakistani journalist Kamran Shafi, who has battled both the NRO and the jihadis, writes: “How is it that those behind the deal-making based on this unconstitutional and illegal ordinance were not named and shamed/charged outright? Indeed, as reported widely at the time, the present chief of army staff (General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani) was the DG ISI (director-general of the infamous Inter-Services Intelligence) when the final draft of the NRO was being presented to Benazir in Dubai and was part of Musharraf’s team sent to convince her.”

Demosthenes would have prescribed for Pakistan’s people a healthy dose of distrust against those seeking to promote democracy by dislodging an elected government on such dubious grounds.

Distrust, again, is what doctors may order against those trying to draft a democratic constitution for Nepal, while keeping out Maoists who won a near-majority in the elections of April 2008 to the Constituent Assembly. The army top brass is playing a far-from-hidden role in this case as well. It is evincing no hurry to forget its ten-year war with the Maoists and to make a fresh start.

On December 31, 2008, the Nepal Congress, the second-largest party, declared an offensive against the Maoists, saying they were not keen to draft a new constitution. It was to the army leadership, however, that the Maoists lost. On May 4, 2009, Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kumar Dahal, also known as Prachanda, stepped down from office when his decision to dismiss then-army chief Rookmangud Katawal from service met with determined and successful opposition.

The Unified Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist (UCPN – M) has, since June, been sending its cadre and followers into the streets in a series of agitations against the successor regime under Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal of a rival communist party. But it is the army again that the Maoists are up against.

What riles them now is stiff resistance from the army, along with non-Maoist parties, to an integration of the Maoist guerrilla force (minus child soldiers) with the army. The resistance has been reintensified in recent days despite the fact that Nepal’s multi-party peace plan – approved and monitored by the United Nations – envisages such integration as an important step.

Another general is involved in the democracy debate in Sri Lanka in the wake of a nearly 26-year-old civil war that has ended in a victory over Tamil insurgency or “terrorism.” General Sarath Fonseka, who led the island-nation’s army of unshining record to the seemingly unlikely victory, has sprung three more surprises on observers.

The first was his post-war rebellion against his political master, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, while the two were seen until then as the duo of strident Sinhala nationalism. Not many expected, either, a veteran soldier to seek an electoral mandate against his enemy on the same side of the ethnic divide. Fonseka and Rajapaksa will face each other in the advanced presidential election on January 26, 2010, (as a prelude to the parliamentary polls of April 2). The last and the largest surprise was the general’s launch of a campaign for an inquiry into “war crimes” allegedly committed by the army under Colombo’s orders.

“Distrust” describes best the reaction of quite a few segments of Sri Lankan opinion to Fonseka’s candidature and claims. His opponents point to his US visit before the political plunge and call him a candidate of Washington and the Pentagon. At least some analysts wonder if the Buddhist-majority nation should brace itself for a phase of Bonapartism. All this does not mean that Rajapaksa suffers from no trust deficit, especially among the sizeable Tamil minority.

What, meanwhile, of the supposedly strongest and safest democracy in South Asia? As 2009 opened, India faced the prospect of a general election with the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) making a confident bid for power. The people have averted that peril, and the BJP has yet to recover fully from factional recriminations since then. In the process, however, the party’s reins have passed into the hands of the farthest right, with its corporate funders and media friends anxious to rebuild a “healthy opposition” allegedly for democracy’s sake.

The voters may have made it safe for democracy in India for the foreseeable future, but is India making it safe for democracy in South Asia?

New Delhi’s stubborn stance of no talks with Islamabad, until Pakistani courts punish the culprits of the Mumbai terrorist strike, does not exactly help the cause of the elected government and democracy in Pakistan. India’s army chief Deepak Kapoor has done similar damage to the cause of Nepal’s democracy with his statement that the army of the Himalayan nation should not induct combatants from the Maoist People’s Liberation Army as it would lead to the politicisation of the state forces. Fonseka’s allegedly “private” visit to New Delhi in early December has also raised fears in Sri Lanka in relation to the democratic exercise ahead.

Demosthenes, if alive today, might also counsel some “distrust” of leading democracies – not only India – among countries around them with a lesser clout.