First Person | Don’t Count on Democracy

Fighting terrorism has nothing to do with democracy

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

The rigging-free General Elections in Pakistan after nearly a decade of direct Musharraf-rule has led to much cheering in the US and India. Hope floats in both countries (also Pakistan of course) that the flickering flame of democracy that has been restored (with much force both from within and outside the country) will eventually vanquish the darkness of terrorism. Yet, the irony is that the evangelist George W. Bush, whose declared life’s mission is to promote democracy in all undemocratic parts of the world, continues to throw his weight behind the so-called dictator Pervez Musharraf, despite the people of Pakistan rejecting him outright. Clearly, Bush and the US understand that promotion of democracy is good as a slogan, but as far as fighting terrorism is concerned, there is no connection between the two.

This is not to suggest that democracy is a bad form of governance. On the contrary, the virtues of democracy are all too obvious to even mention. But unfortunately, preventing and subsequently fighting terrorism is not one of them. In India, we claim that we have been and remain one of the biggest victims of terrorism. While in some cases, it has been supported and sustained by our not so friendly neighbours, the origins and the perpetrators of acts of terror have been home-grown sons of the soil.

The government has alternately called them disaffected youth or misguided boys who need to be brought back to the mainstream. Despite being a vibrant, healthy democracy with self-governing traditions going down to the grassroots in the form of Panchayati Raj, the Indian State has not been able to stem people’s tendency of taking to the guns. From the Northeast where the first fires of insurgency were fanned to Kashmir and Central India, where the state police and the Central para-military forces are grappling with Naxal violence, Indian democracy has neither succeeded in preventing terrorism from taking roots nor managed to effectively fight it many parts. There are many reasons, political, social and economical, for the recurrence of insurgent and terrorist movements in India but without going into those details it can safely be said that presence of democracy has been no guarantee against terrorism.

On the flip side, however, it could be argued that perhaps the presence of democracy allowed space for such groups to form and flourish. Democracy allowed smaller political parties to ride the tide of disenfranchised or marginalised groups’ anger to gain power and, once in power, relegate the same groups to the ranks of petty criminals thereby further pushing them over the brink and towards terrorism. While there are many examples of this, one that immediately comes to mind is of Naxalites in Andhra Pradesh, who always found staunch support for their cause among the state opposition, irrespective of the party. Indian democracy is not alone in playing footsie with the so-called terrorist outfits. While Musharraf may be reviled today as the evil orchestrator of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, but the fledgling separatist movement in Kashmir was supported by the democratically-elected government of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. The anti-India rhetoric in Pakistan reached the crescendo during Bhutto’s time when she exhorted independence for Kashmir in her fiery public speeches.

This brings us to another false claim that democracies do not go to war with one another. It is true that a democracy has an in-built system of checks and balances. Presuming that no people want to go to war for obvious reasons (loss of life, economic hardships and so on), for a democratic government waging war would be a very unpopular step, so unpopular that the government may even fall. But who knows this better than the greatest democracy in the world, the US, that public opinion can be manipulated; that if the war is projected as the last resort, as just and virtuous then public support can even make an unpopular government popular. What else can explain US’ interventionist policies in various parts of the world, most recently Iraq? In India, the 13-day Bharatiya Janata Party government which lost the support on the floor of Parliament came back to power with increased seats on the slogan of winning the Kargil War against Pakistan in 1998.

Honestly, when it comes to terrorism, the form of governance is irrelevant, as long as it is just, inclusive and effective. To prevent radicalisation of fringe groups, the State, whether democratically-elected or authoritarian must ensure that the benefits of governance reach the poorest. And to fight terrorism you need the will as well as support of the people. Coming back to Pakistan, the argument that the coalition government of the two warring political parties can better fight terrorism than what the Musharraf-run administration was doing is unconvincing. Considering that at least one of the parties which are likely to support the coalition (Nawaz Sharif’s PML) is known to have cultivated radical groups in the past, it will be difficult for it to snap the cord and still remain credible among its vote bank. Moreover, in Pakistan, the war is not so much against terrorism, which is the US’ concern, as it is reversing the radicalisation of the society. Unless the objective is clear, democracy or no democracy, the war cannot be won.


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