Midnight’s children come to power

Rajnarayan Chandavarkar

  • Nehru: The Making of India by M.J. Akbar
    Viking, 609 pp, £17.95, January 1989, ISBN 0 670 81699 X
  • Daughter of the East by Benazir Bhutto
    Hamish Hamilton, 333 pp, £12.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 241 12398 4

When Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto recently signed their Islamabad accord, the similarities in their lives and backgrounds immediately attracted widespread attention. They were born, after all, to the same, Western-educated, international, urban élite in the Indian sub-continent. They were both, more and less, midnight’s children, although the younger Benazir might be more accurately attributed to the early hours of the morning. They shared an Oxbridge past. Their parents had been assassinated by their political opponents. They entered office almost as naturally as if they were claiming their inheritance. Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother, is the grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister; wearing the mantle of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the former President who was deposed and then hanged by her predecessor, Benazir presents herself simply as the Daughter of the East. The pundits have been swift to discern in these lineages the peculiar weaknesses of south Asian democracy.

While the recent election of Benazir Bhutto has rekindled hopes for democracy in Pakistan, the outcome of the Tamil Nadu elections in India, in which the Congress Party was seemingly trounced, has prompted the experts to conclude that the days of the Nehru dynasty to numbered. But the Tamil Nadu elections should be regarded more nearly as a triumph than as a disaster for Rajiv Gandhi. His objective, with the prospect of a general election looming, was to use the campaign to rebuild the moribund Congress organisation in the state. Regional parties in Tamil Nadu, while protesting states rights and preaching separatism, have since 1967 worked an electoral pact with the Congress, making their machinery available to the latter in national elections in return for its abstention from state-level contests. With existing political alignments in flux, Rajiv Gandhi’s aim to exercise the atrophied muscles of the state Congress was handsomely realised. For the Congress polled nearly a quarter of the votes, increasing their share substantially since the last election. On the other hand, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham’s (DMK) massive majority in the assembly, despite the disarray of their rivals, was founded on only a modest electoral improvement. So the fate of the Congress in the Tamil Nadu elections provides no text for the prophets of Rajiv’s doom.

If it was necessary for the Congress to make new friends and perform well, this was none-theless a good election to lose. In essence, it is to the advantage of every Congress prime minister in New Delhi that the states elect chief ministers who are able both to manage the diverse, demanding and often fractious interests over which they preside and to deliver bargains struck with the centre. This could mean that a Congress prime minister in New Delhi might often find it easier and preferable to work with a chief minister from another party in the states. Thus, for instance, while G.K. Moopanar, the Congress leader in Tamil Nadu, is a political nonentity, whose future lies behind him, Karunanidhi, the DMK leader, commands the influence, experience and power to make deals stick.

Political parties in India, perhaps anywhere, as Rajni Kothari pointed out long ago, are less a direct reflection of class interests or coherent ideologies than ramshackle coalitions competing around the structure and resources of government. Political groupings sometimes seek to gain access to the Government by operating within the Congress, and sometimes, more effectively, without. Accordingly, such groupings have, since its inception in 1885, moved nimbly into and out of the Congress. Moreover, most political parties have been cut from the hide of the Congress. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Congress contains within itself the full range of political ideologies and social and economic interests to be found across the whole political spectrum, and conversely, opposition parties of every description, whether Communist or Hindu nationalist, representatives of business or spokesmen for poor peasants, are liable to find kindred spirits somewhere within the Congress Party at the centre. In national politics, as a result, opposition parties in general, and especially the networks which comprise them, cannot always be sure to gain more by sinking their differences in a large and happy alliance than by pursuing their objectives through sympathetic factions within the Congress. These factors have traditionally favoured the Congress at the national level, and now ensure Rajiv Gandhi’s prospects at the coming general elections.

Recent attempts to forge an anti-Congress coalition at the national level have encountered familiar constraints, not dissimilar to those which paralysed and then destroyed the Janata Government of 1977-79. For such a coalition requires the support of regional bosses and local magnates who already command substantial political empires, sizeable networks of patronage and discerning, if noisy armies of clients. Some are reluctant to stake local power for future gain at the centre, while others view the prospect of gaining a foothold in New Delhi primarily in terms of its benefits for their local position. There have already been major conflicts within the Janata Dal, some largely unresolved, over the terms of the alliance and the place within it of various constituent parties. Moreover, the parties which make up the Dal are already beginning to divide internally as particular factions calculate the consequences of combination at the national level for their future in locality and province.

Since the Fifties, political commentators have perceived ‘India’s most dangerous decade’ at regular intervals, and have solemnly predicted the nation’s disintegration. Yet, it would appear, the centre has gone from strength to strength. If the Congress has been losing power in several states, it has firmly retained its grip on the centre. Separatist movements organised along the line of religion or caste, language or region, have appeared to proliferate. It would be tempting to read these separatist movements as the inevitable consequence of India’s size and bewildering diversity. But this is a superficial view. It is perhaps more true of India than of simpler and more homogeneous societies that nearly everybody can define him or her self in terms of one minority or another. Political associations based on such catch-all categories as Brahmin and non-Brahmin, Hindu and Muslim, language or region, cannot simply be deduced from social fact. Separatist movements have more usually constituted attempts by factions to mobilise against ruling parties in the states or to bid for a larger share of the centre’s resources by stressing their relative deprivation, minority status or states rights. Thus, some separatist movements have returned readily to the Congress fold once their immediate aim was realised, while many have been shaped largely by their relationship with the centre. The most dramatic example of the latter case was the attempt by Indira Gandhi to encourage the pretensions of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as a counterweight to the dominant Akali Dal in the Punjab. Political competition, rather than mass religious fundamentalism, lies at the heart of the Punjab crisis. The intractability of the crisis arises from the divisions spawned by the demand for Khalistan and not from the solidarities forged by religious and regional nationalism.

This interplay of power and political groupings at different levels of government is vital to ‘the making of India’, the explicatory subtitle of M.J. Akbar’s biography of Nehru, a relentlessly superficial and trivialising book, which has not been improved by the now voluminous historical literature on 20th-century India. Readers interested in Nehru will find his politics and personality better illuminated in the more reflective and penetrating Autobiography, or indeed in the earlier studies of Brecher and Gopal. Nehru was in politics a late developer. He was not alone in leaving Harrow and Trinity as ‘something of a prig with little to recommend me’. In the Twenties and Thirties, he became the Prince Charming of the Congress; his enthusiasms were to be indulged whenever possible and quickly squashed when necessary. It was only in the mid-Forties, in the negotiations over the endgame, that Nehru cut his political teeth and in the following two decades developed into a skilful and powerful politician who managed the diverse lingusitic, ethnic and class tensions in Indian society with remarkable dexterity. It is a measure of his success that those who followed have found the task extremely difficult, and that the Congress since his death has shown a growing propensity to lose state elections.

India’s Punjab crisis has often appeared to carry the resonances of the Pakistan movement of the Forties. But we should postpone the conclusion that history is repeating itself. For the similarities are deceptive and the differences fundamental. Perhaps the major difference is that in 1947 the centre did not hold: rather, it was busily trying to dissolve itself. The demand for Pakistan was not simply the function of a homogeneous religious nationalism: in the context of the constitutional negotiations of the Forties, it was a bargaining counter, kept studiously vague and undefined, for Jinnah to win a more favourable deal for the League at the centre, and to ride shotgun on the Muslim politicians in the provinces. In 1946-47, the British decision to cut and run imposed upon Jinnah the ‘truncated and moth-eaten’ Pakistan he had repudiated only a few years earlier.

The regions which were thus spatchcocked together under the sovereignty of Pakistan in 1947 had little in common except a long history of fierce provincial particularisms. In these provinces, the demand for Pakistan had elicited the weakest response. Moreover, the provinces had looked to no obvious centre within the new state – unlike India, which had inherited one from the Raj. Some regions, like Baluchistan, had barely experienced centralised rule in any form. In the North-West Frontier, the dominant political factions looked towards Congress and New Delhi and regarded the plainsmen of the Punjab with the deepest suspicion. So political groupings factions and interests in Pakistan competed to create the most favourable centre, not simply to arrange themselves to gain a larger share of its resources. Necessarily, this competition occurred largely outside the framework of a binding state structure.

The lack of an effective and coherent political centre served to privilege existing supra-regional institutions like the Army and the Civil Service. The fledgling centre derived some of its power from its role as a conduit for foreign aid and the allocation of development projects. However, the flow of foreign aid, often closely linked to the strength of Pakistan’s military alliance with the USA, only served to enhance the role and influence of the Army in domestic politics. Again, the state was committed to rapid industrialisation at the outset as a means of integrating the new nation. But industrial development which occurred within labyrinthine state regulations elaborated and accentuated the influence of the bureaucracy. Islam offered a third source of national consensus. But Muslims in the subcontinent did not form a homogeneous community before partition, and they remain socially as well as doctrinally divided in Pakistan today. Islamisation, during Zia’s regime, probably accentuated the differences between the various Islamic groups and often met with a sullen resistance. When, in 1984, Zia held a referendum on the programme, barely 10 per cent bothered to vote.

Another important factor shaping the politics of Pakistan has been the regional dominance of the Punjab, which has only been strengthened by the secession of Bengal. Punjab provides about 80 per cent of Pakistan’s armed forces and dominates the Civil Service. The region’s agrarian prosperity has been matched by the broad-based growth of small-scale industries, and in addition, it has long been favoured by the development policies of successive regimes.

When Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto came to power in 1971, he had a unique opportunity, it now appears, to redress these imbalances and develop a more coherent political centre. The Army was discredited by revelations of its atrocities in Bengal, and humiliated in the war with India. Since Bhutto drew his support from Sind, there was also the possibility that he might challenge the dominance of the Punjab. But if Bhutto had the charisma of a pir, he lacked the wisdom. He repressed trade unions and froze real wages: but he also frightened businessmen with his populist rhetoric and his nationalisation programmes. He threatened the Punjab but failed to breach its dominance. He annoyed the mullahs by an apparently hedonistic secularism. He was random in his repression and held many more political prisoners in his jails than his dictatorial successor, prompting the argument that Pakistan enjoyed more liberty in the last years of Zia’s regime than at any time during Bhutto’s reign. He loosened the stranglehold of the bureaucracy simply by sacking top civil servants in their droves – 1800 in a single period of six months, according to one count – and making room for his own friends and placemen. Finally, his interventions in the politics of the Army enlivened factions within it and allowed them expression where once they had been concealed by the rituals of professionalism. During his six years in office, Bhutto, far from building a framework of consensus, accumulated a remarkably wide range of enemies.

Ironically, Bhutto promoted Zia-ul-Haq over the heads of several senior generals as Chief of Army Staff. Although Zia had a reputation as a fundamentalist, and even as a ‘petty thief’, Benazir recalls, his name was not ‘besmirched’, like that of some of his colleagues, by ‘drinking, adultery and doubtful loyalty’. Benazir’s description of her first meeting with Zia suggests how the Bhuttos may have underestimated him.

a short, nervous, ineffectual-looking man whose pomaded hair was parted in the middle and lacquered to his head. He looked more like an English cartoon villain than an inspiring military leader. And he seemed so obsequious, telling me over and over again how honoured he was to meet the daughter of such a great man as Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Certainly, my father could have found a more commanding Chief-of-Staff, I thought to myself. But I said nothing.

A whisper might have changed the course of history. There is a moral to this story: prefer by far the bibulous, fornicating general of doubtful loyalty – you may not see him coming, but it almost certainly will not matter.

For many years, Benazir was a powerful symbol of opposition; now, as she takes up her place in the palace, she is the opposition at her own court. Powerful interests have contrived to restrict severely her freedom of manoeuvre. Benazir Bhutto is encumbered with a hostile President, Ishaq Khan, and the former general and Zia adviser, Shahibzada Yaqub Khan, as foreign minister. She has also had to accept a self-denying ordinance over nuclear policy, Afghanistan, and, as financial crisis looms, the gargantuan military budget. In other words, the armed forces have retained a firm control over the vital areas of defence and foreign affairs. With the appointment of Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the opposing Islamic Democratic Alliance, as the chief minister of the Punjab, she has apparently been cut out of that key province.

Benazir’s predicament suggests that dynasts in the sub-continent are scarcely free agents. They enter office with the indulgence of power-brokers and political connections far stronger than themselves. Their role has been in effect to mediate between more powerful but also more particular interests, and thereby to hold factions and alliances together. But it should not be assumed that their elevation to office is invariably a sentence of weakness.

However circumscribed her options, Benazir Bhutto is not devoid of them. Her most obvious and scarcely negligible asset is, of course, that she is the incumbent prime minister and wields the patronage of office. Significantly, too, her Pakistan People’s Party is only marginally weaker than the IDA in the Punjab provincial assembly, which suggests that she need not be cut out of the Punjab for ever. Central power might enable her to attract some of the Independents in the provincial assembly to her side, as well as the dissident factions within the heterogeneous IDA, and to exploit the dislike which the old landowning families in the Punjab are said to feel for the johnny-come-lately Sharif. Moreover, the Army is no nest of singing birds. In fact, it would appear that Benazir’s assumption of office was facilitated by the failure of powerful factions within the Army to agree upon a successor to Zia. Benazir may be able to exploit these differences over time to loosen their control. But this is a long, slow and dangerous game in which the stakes are high and the players always liable to kick the table over. Finally, another strategy available to her is to establish herself, following an old Nehru tradition, as an international leader in order to widen her options at home. She is well placed to make herself the vital and indispensable link in Pakistan’s relationship with the USA and to effect a rapprochement with India. Her natural asset, she tells us, is that she is ‘free of the complexes and prejudices which had torn Indians and Pakistanis apart in the bloody trauma of partition’. Like Rajiv Gandhi, Benazir belongs to ‘a new generation’ capable of ‘burying the bitter past’.

Daughter of the East is written in a breathless, True Confessions style which is easily mocked. But books by working politicians should be read with their intended audience in mind. The Bhutto saga has already topped the best-seller list in Pakistan. This is indeed a ripping tale told in the form of melodrama. It is the story of an ordinary, good, albeit modern, Muslim girl who enjoys an innocent and idyllic childhood, studying virtuously at a convent, spending her evenings in the Sindh Club, stocking her wardrobe from Saks Fifth Avenue. She dotes on her regal father, who is clearly very rich but is also unerringly just, awesomely powerful but unremittingly humane. The idyll progresses through suitably carefree but stimulating years at Radcliffe and Oxford, naturally in the company of other baby dynasts. Meanwhile, her father had become king. Then the peace is shattered by a disloyal and villainous courtier who deceives, deposes, persecutes and finally hangs the father and brutally maltreats the family. Following her years in jail and exile, virtue triumphs and happily so does Love, and the heroine, soon after going to press, receives what is rightfully hers. It would be a nice gesture if RK Studios were to buy the film rights and turn it into the toast of Bombay Hollywood. Fights, of course, by Shetty. And let’s hope there will be no need for a sequel.