Deadlines and Democracy
by J Sri Raman on 24 Jul 2008 0 Comment

Even as China prepares to host the Olympic Games, four countries of South Asia are engaged in a political race against time that may prove more breathtakingly frenetic than any forthcoming event in Beijing's state-of-art stadia.


The government in the biggest of the four, India, is making a grimly determined effort to beat a deadline on its nuclear deal with the US, prescribed by the two parties themselves. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has thought nothing of precipitating a major political crisis for himself by parting with the Left bloc in parliament on the issue.


He and his coalition regime have displayed no desperate urgency about a furiously rising inflation, galloping food prices and suicides of scores of farmers in the country's drought-stricken parts. They, however, just cannot wait for the deal to go through.


They cite technical reasons, of course, for their uncharacteristic speed in this matter. The time, they claim, is too short for the steps needed for the deal to be finalized and fully operational. First, an “India-specific” agreement has to be signed with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Then, the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has to approve of the exceptional gesture the deal extends to India. Finally, the bilateral US-India agreement on the deal, initialled in 2006, has to be passed in the US Congress.


The draft agreement with the IAEA was circulated among its board of governors on July 8. Normally, they are given 45 days to study the draft. The process is, however, being expedited. The IAEA board is scheduled to meet on August 1 to consider the draft. The US has undertaken to sell the deal to the NSG and, judging by the confidence in Washington and New Delhi, may succeed.


Doubts were voiced until the other day about the time available for the US Congress to seal and deliver the deal. The preceding process was not expected to be over soon enough, and, a lame-duck session of the Congress after November 4 was not considered likely. The plea of the Singh government and its supporters has been that “patriots” should do nothing to delay this deal beyond the term of President George W. Bush, without whose backing it was considered as good as doomed.


There should have been a distinct drop in the degree of desperation after Senator Barack Obama's latest statement on the subject. The presumed presidential nominee of the Democrats, seen earlier as suspicious of the deal and its proliferation dimension, has diluted his stand. In a recent media interview, he said: “The ... agreement effectively balanced a range of important issues, from our strategic relationship with India to our non-proliferation concerns to India's energy needs,” besides helping “combat global warming” in the bargain.


This, however, has not sufficed to allay New Delhi's anxieties. It is rushing ahead on the deal, risking a confidence vote in India's parliament on July 22 without the support of its former Left allies and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, with its own front of smaller parties. The government hopes to survive with what almost all observers consider opportunist support from erstwhile enemies [as indeed it did – Editor]. As the anti-deal camp points out, the Singh regime places the nuclear pact above the nation's parliamentary democracy and the Prime Minister's promise to Bush above the commitment to the people.




Democracy is more directly involved in the other South Asian races against time. In the Himalayan state of Nepal, an elected government has yet to take charge, three months after the polls that ought to have put the Maoists in power by now.


The parties and forces which have done their best or worst to keep at bay a people-mandated coalition with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) at the head, are now complaining loudly about the long delay. They are blaming the Maoists for the situation under which, according to them, the newly constituted Constituent Assembly (CA) won't be able to complete its work of giving Nepal a new statute within the two-year time frame.


They argue that the budgetary exercise that will befall the new parliament and government soon can alone consume no less than six months. While fomenting ethnic demands and agitations, they are also preparing to oppose any extension of the Constituent Assembly's term.


Whether, and to what extent, all this will benefit forces identified with a feudal monarchy, biding their time despite its overthrow, remains to be watched. Clearly, elections have not ended the state of uncertainty in Nepal. Can that be one reason why Washington has yet to remove the terrorist tag pinned on the Maoists in the pre-democracy days that already seems distant?




Preservation of a reborn democracy is also the issue involved in Pakistan's race against time. Compulsions of numbers and a common reluctance to part with regained power have kept the otherwise unlikely partners in the ruling coalition - the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) - in uneasy coexistence. The PML(N), however, has posed a threat to the coalition's survival by pulling out all its ministers from the government to press their demand for immediate reinstatement of judges sacked by Pervez Musharraf as military ruler.


After protracted attempts at persuading its ally, the PPP has run out of patience. It has now given the PML(N) till the end of July to rejoin the government and threatened that the ministerial chairs kept vacant until now will otherwise find new occupants.


The issue of judges, however, may not be the only one to embarrass the PPP and infuriate the PML(N). The increasingly fierce controversy over the US military role in Pakistan and Afghanistan may give rise to far more irreconcilable differences in the ruling dispensation. Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has not made matters easier for Islamabad by making a surprise visit to Pakistan last weekend, causing speculation about stepped-up US attacks against the Taliban in tribal areas.




“Democratic” elections, promised by December 2008, themselves set the deadline that Bangladesh is striving to meet, according to official claims. Many Bangladeshis, however, entertain doubts about the democratic character of the proposed exercise. They wonder how democratic it can be if the emergency imposed on the country by the army-backed government of Fakhruddin Ahmad is not lifted. They are also puzzled how it can be democratic if the leaders of the two largest political parties - Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) - are not allowed to contest.


Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League and Begum Khaleda Zia of the BNP have been under detention and facing long trials on corruption charges, which both of them dub as “trumped-up.” Hasina was allowed in June to go the US for medical treatment, while Khaleda has been offered the benefit of a similar break. The AL leader has already responded by agreeing to the holding of local elections in August, and Khaleda may well follow suit.


The question is whether the interim government, with the far-from-invisible presence and power of the army behind it, cares at all for the health of the country's democracy. So far, it has been proceeding on the assumption that it knows what is best for the people. While army chief Moeen U Ahmed has repeatedly ruled out a return to “electoral democracy,” the Fakhruddin regime has been openly trying to promote factions and individuals in the AL and the BNP willing to rebel against the most popular leaders of the two parties.


It is hard to share the hope, voiced by some, that the US-headed West will ensure “democratic” elections. For one thing, it is difficult to see Washington's man in Dhaka, James Francis Moriarty, the diplomat who tried his utmost to defeat democracy in Nepal, on a very different mission in Bangladesh. For another, William B. Milam, a former US ambassador in Dhaka as well as Islamabad, appeared to give the game away in a recent newspaper article.


Writing on the dilemma in Dhaka he said: “Western governments have, too often when dealing with political transitions in the third world, neglected the other important foundations of real democracy in their anxiety to ensure a ‘legitimate’ election. They often spend more effort and resources in the aftermath of a ‘legitimate’ election that, instead of resolving political difficulties as it was supposed to do, actually makes things worse.”


The races against time may make things worse indeed over a vast South Asian region, though not exactly in the way meant by Milam.


Reprinted with permission from Truthout


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