Indira and the Islamists

Over at the Wall Street Journal, Reason Foundation analyst Shikha Dalmia looks at the current problems in Pakistan through the India's flirtation with emergency rule in 1975, which turned out to be a real setback for secular rule.

The upshot was that once the emergency was lifted and elections called, Jan Sangh declared itself the savior of Indian democracy -- a boast that its successors like the Bharatiya Janata Party still make -- and won a prominent place in the coalition of secular parties that ultimately defeated Gandhi. This alliance collapsed in less than two years, thanks in no small part to Jan Sangh's sectarian demands. Nevertheless, as New York University Professor Arvind Rajagopal has noted, this brief stint in power proved an invaluable launching pad for the group's virulent ideology and did lasting damage to the country's commitment to secularism.

Indeed, although Gandhi, like her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was an ardent secularist, after she returned to power she assiduously tried to build her Hindu bona fides, even accepting an invitation by a Hindu fundamentalist group to inaugurate the Ganga Jal Yatra, an annual event under which Hindus gather in a show of unity and collectively march to the mountains to get water from the holy Ganges river. Gandhi's gesture was significant because it legitimized the use of Hindu symbolism for political mobilization, something that subsequently produced immense tensions and ugly confrontations among Hindus and Muslims....

India's example shows that even one vacation from democracy can be a huge setback for secularism. Yet another prolonged suspension of democracy will leave Pakistan few resources to beat back its Islamists. This is one instance where the Bush administration's avowed commitment to democracy is not just the more principled -- but also the more practical -- way of countering the threat of Islamic extremists.

Whole thing here.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    I'm a little confused. Is citing the historical successes of religious fanatics at the ballot box supposed to be an argument in favor of or against the recent actions of General Musharraf?

    "This is one instance where the Bush administration's avowed commitment to democracy is not just the more principled -- but also the more practical -- way of countering the threat of Islamic extremists."

    There was an unsuccessful coup in 1951, but there was a successful coup in 1958, which installed a military strong man that had to be deposed by another coup in 1970. In the coup of 1970, after a show trial, they hanged Benazir Bhutto's husband, the civilian prime minister at the time. There was another coup in Pakistan as recently as 1999, when Musharraf took power, allegedly to prevent the then prime minister from seeking a diplomatic resolution to Kashmir.

    ...but it's the latest state of emergency that's finally broken the back of democracy in Pakistan?

    I have no problem with the application of pragmatism to the War on Terror, even if it involves democracy, but having seen both Islamist militias in Iraq and Hamas recently exploit the ballot box as an extremely pragmatic tactic themselves, I need a little more than the example of Indira Gandhi and how what she did contributed to the inevitableness of the BJP before I jump on the Even-a-Legitimate, Islamist, Nuclear-Pakistan-Would Be Better-Than This bandwagon.

  • drawnasunder||

    You mean Musharraf's dictatorial "emergency" may backfire in the long run and leave him and his country worse off? His power grab isn't setting the country on the path to freedom, peace and prosperity, but might actually be the death throws of a corrupt, dying regime? Huh.

  • ||

    The thing to remember about expansions of power in response to emergencies - whether we're talking about Pakistan's current status, or the expansion of executive power in the US, or about the launching of "regime change" wars - is that the degree of threat they pose to democracy aren't dependant upon the legitimacy of the justification.

    Whether there was a serious threat of Islamist militas taking over Pakistan, of terrorist cells in the US carrying out attacks, or of the Iraqi government giving WMDs to al Qaeda, or whether these were entirely fictional pretexts, the political dynamic they set up is the same. While such actions may sometimes be necessary, concern about the harms they may cause cannot be dismissed by arguing that they are being implemented for legitimate reasons.

    Ken Shultz,

    I think the message is more about Musharrif dashing the hopes of a democratic renewal than of "breaking the back" of a functional democracy.

  • Hungry Hungry||

    This is kind of weird. As if somebody said the Watergate was the cause of the Christian conservatism movement. I mean it's possible, but not the normal way of looking at things.

    I can kind of see how Indira Gandhi's unpopularity caused increased support for BJP type parties, but the communists and a host of regionals parties gained support from Congress Party disillusionment.

    Unlike Musharraf, Indira Gandhi came from within the establishment (Congress party), and thus produced a movement towards change. Most of the protest towards Musharraf has come from the mainstream parties and under the banners of two secular politicans. Most polls suggest that they, not the Islamists such as the MMA, have become the popular alternatives to Musharraf.

    While the Zia Al-Haq regime was a setback against Pakistani secularism, the Ayub Khan regime may have strengthened secularism. Hard and fast rules between dictatorship and religious fundamentalism can be difficult.

    I cannot read the whole article due to pay barrier, so I may be missing parts of the argument. Still, I find the comparison more of an interesting academic exercise than a workable theory that should affect current foreign policy.

  • ||

    I don't think Musharraf was worried about Islamists taking over; he was worried about th mainstream opposition asserting their rights and backed up by the Supreme Court.

  • ||

    "This is one instance where the Bush administration's avowed commitment to democracy is not just the more principled -- but also the more practical -- way of countering the threat of Islamic extremists."

    So should we invade Pakistan? As for "avowed", what does that mean? Is it Wall Street Journalese for "not really"? Or are we going to invade Russia too? And Georgia? What about China?

  • ||

    Let's not forget Egypt - where the loathesome Islamic Brotherhood joined up with liberal, democratic reformist groups to protest the electoral chicanery of the secularist military regime of the president.

  • ||

    99.9% of the governments in history haven't been democracies. There's not a shred of evidence that these Islamic countries can have it at the present time. In Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine its been a disaster. Afghanistan's project of herding illiterate tribesman to the polls will collapse as soon as the Westerners get bored and our foreign policy elites come up with their next grand plan.

    The idea that dictators are never neccessary is a pipe dream. The first requirement to run Pakistan has to be being a ruthless son of a bitch.

    Its not a coincidence that so many of the neo-cons were communists before. Its comes back to the same wishful thinking about humanity and possibilities for the world.

  • ||

    Democracy tends to grow in fits and starts. Two steps forward, one back. Taiwan and South Korea are two examples supporting that claim. Hell, I'll add our neighbors to the south to that list. India appears to have a fuctioning stable democracy today, but one step back would not surprise me at all.

    You could make a presentable case that tht alien and sedition acts in our own past were at least a small step back from democracy. What that means in Pakistan, I don't know. I'm just pointing out we shouldn't be surprised.

  • Ashwani||

    I think you need to make a little more investigation into the indian laws before you write the article.

    Calling Indira Gandhi secular is a huge mistake. You should read arun shourie's book on role of religion in Indian politics. The book is at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/8190019929/reasonmagazineA/

    I think the Emergency is the one finally broke the camel's back when Hindus realised they were always getting the raw deal, from Pakistan, Muslim League to Shah Bano, this has been a consistent story.

    To say that fundamentalists only because of Emergency is disingenuous..

  • shanks||

    phooey!lousy thesis and conjecture. Indira Gandhi courted EVERY religious group, the sikhs(Bhindranwale), the Muslim vote bank in UP; in essence, the religion mattered in as much as getting votes.

    She played every group.

    shanks

  • ||

    1986 humour:

    What's the difference between Indira Ghandi and the Richard Brodeur (Vancouver Canucks' goalie at the time)?

    Indira Ghandi can stop 7 shots in a row.

  • ||

    Aresen,
    20+ years and it's still funny. I really ought to get in for treatment soon.

  • ||

    There's not a shred of evidence that these Islamic countries can have it at the present time. In Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine its been a disaster.

    In Turkey, Indonesia, Kurdistan, Bosnia, and Bangladesh, it has been a success.

  • ||

    As for "herding illiterate tribesmen to the polls," I'll refer you to the fact that Andrew Jackson's supporters used to offer voters a swig of whiskey AND a fresh plug of chewing tobacco in exchange for their vote, back in the day.

  • ||

    "I think the message is more about Musharrif dashing the hopes of a democratic renewal than of "breaking the back" of a functional democracy."

    Got it.

  • ||

    "This is kind of weird. As if somebody said the Watergate was the cause of the Christian conservatism movement. I mean it's possible, but not the normal way of looking at things."

    Yeah, given that democratically elected leaders are often responsive to the sensibilities of their constituents, to my eye, blaming BJP sympathies on Indira Gandhi's behavior seems a little like the tail wagging the dog here.

    "...an annual event under which Hindus gather in a show of unity and collectively march to the mountains to get water from the holy Ganges river."

    I don't know anything about this rite, but it sounds like the President of the United States going to church on Easter.

  • ||

    "So should we invade Pakistan? As for "avowed", what does that mean? Is it Wall Street Journalese for "not really"? Or are we going to invade Russia too? And Georgia? What about China?"

    It's like watching a burglary in progress--there's a spectrum of options between going in guns blazing and joining the burglars in crime.

    Yes, really.

  • ||

    In Turkey, Indonesia, Kurdistan, Bosnia, and Bangladesh, it has been a success.

    You mean those Turks and Kurds that are about to go to war or the Bangladesh that is one of the poorest countries in the world?

    Those are only "successes" because the standard for sucess is so much lower in Muslim countries than the rest of the world. The proof of that is Turkey, who has a military coup every couple decades and may be headed towards one again, is held up as the prototype for a successful Muslim democracy.

  • ||

    I'm not sure you can safely consider the Emergency of '75 to be India's *one* vacation from democracy. I'd posit that India's currently on an extended vacation. One thing granting that claim validity is that India's current president, Pratibha Patil, is the same person who demanded forced sterilization of people with "hereditary diseases" and endorsed Sanjay Gandhi's sterilization of low-caste males. Info here.

    It's also worth noting that Gandhism remains the guiding philosophy of India. Gandhism is an ideology dedicated to publicly projecting pacifism and egalitarianism while privately practicing violent suppression and discrimination. Such practices are, of course, completely counter to democracy and secularism. Info here.

  • ||

    You mean those Turks and Kurds that are about to go to war or the Bangladesh that is one of the poorest countries in the world?

    And this shows that the citizens of those countries are not ready for democracy, how, exactly?

    If you want to hold out Turkey because it has military coups, then I guess we have to stop referring to, well, everything south of Mexico as democratic.

  • ||

    The presidency is a largely ceremonial role in India.

    Ken--
    It was Bhutto's father who was hanged (in 1979), not her husband.

  • ||

    Pardon me.

  • Lava||

    Although the conclusion of pakistan going to hands of islamic fundamentalist is plausible.(even considering the prev miltitary dictator Zia imposed sharia as the law in pakistan ) the comparison of BJP rise to power of Indira's Emergency is certainly not true. The BJP got closer to power only after 1990 due to the controversy over temple/mosque in a town considered sacred by hindus.Indira imposed emergency in 1977 and BJP was a minor partner the coalition that won the elections) Congress won elections comfartable in 1979 and again congress party won more than 2/3 majority in 1984 when Indira was assasinated. BJPs rise to power was helped by opening of the temple/mosque premises for worship by the congress govt in late 80s. Shikha's analysis seems to be fitting the narrative to the conclusion already made.

  • ||

    As an American, I simply do not have a major stake in which form of government Indians and Pakistanis choose for themselves (or choose to tolerate). The nuclear weapons and their use and dissemination? That, I do care about. But ultimately, the USA pretty much has to work with whichever group of crooks is in power at any given time. It's not our role to choose them.

  • han||

    That even if Kambakhsh did insult the Prophet

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement