Indira and the Islamists

One vacation from democracy can be a huge setback for secularism

The Bush administration has so far taken only perfunctory steps to prod Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to lift “emergency rule,” reinstate the constitution and hold elections. Doing anything more, the United States seems to fear, might produce an Islamist victory at the polls — and undermine a key ally in its war on terror. In effect, the old foreign policy bogeyman of the “fear of the alternative” is back in the White House.

But at least with respect to Pakistan, this fear ought to be banished. If anything, the longer Mr. Musharraf is allowed to suspend democracy, the more politically powerful Pakistan’s religious extremists are likely to become. Those who doubt this thesis should peer across Pakistan’s southern border and examine what happened during India’s two-year flirtation with emergency rule in 1975.

Like Mr. Musharraf, India’s then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared emergency after a state high court invalidated the elections that had brought her to power, on grounds of corruption and fraud. But instead of stepping down, she gave herself extraordinary powers and launched a massive crackdown on every democratic institution that India had painstakingly built since its independence from the British in 1947. She threw leaders of opposition parties behind bars and clamped down on the press, threatening to cut off the power supply to newspapers that refused to submit to her censorship. She also banned political activity by grassroots organizations.

Shutting down these institutions had a perverse side effect from which India’s secular democracy has yet to fully recover: It left the field of resistance open to Hindu extremist groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its then political front Jan Sangh, allowing them to regain the political legitimacy they had lost after one of their erstwhile recruits assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. The RSS was banned shortly after the assassination, but once the ban was lifted, it decentralized its organization further, making it harder for authorities to keep track of all its activities. The RSS maintained a public face of a charitable social organization, but beneath that facade lay a more sinister side that engaged in communal sectarian incitement and other subversive activities.

The RSS’s quasi-underground character proved to be a vital asset after Gandhi choked off all regular channels for political organization. Unlike the other parties, Jan Sangh was quickly able to mobilize the nationwide network of RSS’s “shakhas,” or highly disciplined cadres, and take over the mantle of resistance. It temporarily suspended its ideology of “Hindutva,” or Hindu nationalism, to make common cause with what it dubbed the “second struggle for independence.” It played an important role in producing and disseminating underground literature chronicling Gandhi’s excesses, publishing speeches by her opponents and reaching out to families of arrested dissidents.

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.

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A similar political mainstreaming of radical Islamist groups might occur in Pakistan if Mr. Musharraf is allowed to prolong his power grab. In fact, the situation could be worse, given that, unlike India, Pakistan has never been a secular country and Islamists have always exerted considerable behind-the-scenes influence on government. They have infiltrated the Pakistani intelligence services and are well represented in the ranks of the civil bureaucracy. And there has always been close cooperation between Pakistan’s generals and mullahs because of their common interest in cultivating Pakistan’s Islamic identity and playing up the threat that Hindu India poses to it. The one government institution where Islamists have only a minority presence is the Pakistani Parliament.

But that might change if Mr. Musharraf continues to postpone elections and crush political opponents. Under such circumstances, Jammat-e-Islami (JI), Pakistan’s oldest religious party with ties to the Taliban — and an organization that harbors a long-standing desire to impose Shariah, or Islamic law, on the country — and its sister organizations might well become useful to secular parties such as former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party. JI and its cohorts command even bigger powers of mobilization than Jan Sangh did during India’s emergency. They run madrassas, or religious schools, publish newspapers and have sizeable cadres that can be quickly deployed for street protests. These resources might prove vitally important in resisting Mr. Musharraf.

“Instead of the secular and religious parties working against each other, they will start working together,” fears Prof. Hasan-Askari Rizvi of Punjab University in Lahore. Indeed, the Associated Press has already reported that Ms. Bhutto is inviting the Islamist parties, many of whose members too have been thrown in jail, to “join hands” with her. All of this will allow the Islamists to mask their real agenda and piggyback on a popular cause to win more representation in parliament when elections are held. Even if secularists like Ms. Bhutto prevail in these elections eventually, it will be much harder for them to resist Islamist demands if they are beholden to them for beating back the emergency. In effect, the Islamist reach will not only gain in depth — but legitimacy as well.

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If Mr. Musharraf were prodded to call off the emergency and honor his commitment to hold genuinely free and transparent elections in early January, would that lead to an Islamist victory, or at least significant gains, as the Bush administration fears? Not at all.

Islamist parties had their best showing in the 2002 general elections, when they secured 11.1% of the vote and 53 out of 272 parliamentary seats — a major gain over the pathetic three seats they won a decade before. But this gain was less serious than it seems. Most of the additional seats came not from Pakistan proper, but a few border provinces in the West that were experiencing a resurgence of anti-Americanism given their deep cross-border ties with the Taliban in Afghanistan. More crucially, however, Mr. Musharraf banned Ms. Bhutto and leaders of other secular parties from running, making it hard for these parties to secure a decent voter turnout. If free and fair elections were to be held today, Prof. Rizvi estimates secular parties would win handily, with the Islamists commanding no more than 5% of the national vote.

Islamist victory at the polls is not a real threat in Pakistan right now. The Bush administration should not allow that fear to deter it from applying maximum pressure on Mr. Musharraf to hold elections posthaste. The U.S. can, for instance, threaten to cut off Pakistan’s supply of F-16 fighter jets and other nonterrorism-related aid.

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.