Musharraf’s Indira Moment

Here is a quiz question for all readers. Who told London’s Sunday Times, “It is wholly wrong to say that I resorted to Emergency to keep myself in office. The extra-constitutional challenge was constitutionally met.” The “emergency was declared to save the country from disruption and collapse”; it had “enabled us to put through the new economic programme” and led to “a new sense of national confidence.”

If you guessed General (retired) Pervez Musharraf, you guessed wrong. It was Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975. She also told the Saturday Review of New York, “What has been done… is not an abrogation of democracy but an effort to safeguard it.”

Although she came from a democratic dynasty, Mrs Gandhi fell into the authoritarian temptation when on June 26, 1975 she imposed Emergency in India. Most observers thought she was acting to avoid the consequences of the judgement by the Allahabad High Court annulling her election to parliament from Rae Bareilly in 1971.

Mrs Gandhi, who considered herself indispensable for her country, explained the imposition of emergency as an opportunity to clean up accumulated mess and lay the foundations of a bold new order. India was not a strategic ally of the US and Britain and, therefore, international public opinion was not a consideration.

Still she had to explain her action to India and the world. Her statements from that period strongly resemble the recent pronouncements of General Musharraf and his henchmen.

Mrs Gandhi said, “The president has declared emergency. There is nothing to panic about.” She claimed, “This was a necessary response to the deep and widespread conspiracy which has been brewing ever since I began to introduce certain progressive measures of benefit to the common man and woman of India.”

Mrs Gandhi’s explanation of the Emergency reads uncannily similar to Musharraf’s recent statements though, given his general aversion to extensive reading, it is unlikely that he had read Mrs Gandhi’s statements before making his own.

After administering what she described as ‘bitter medicine’ necessary for the good of a sick ‘child’, Mrs Gandhi decided to secure a mandate from what she expected to be a grateful Indian populace.

Elections were held in the third week of March 1977 and when results were announced on March 20, the ruling Congress party had been routed by an unusual alliance of all anti-Indira forces joined under the banner of the Janata Party. Indira Gandhi lost her own seat in parliament from Rae Bareilly.

For all her authoritarian disposition, Mrs Gandhi did not have it in her to try and rig a general election. India’s strong democratic tradition and its independent Election Commission and judiciary would have made it difficult, if not impossible, to thwart the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box.

Over the next three years, Mrs Gandhi reorganised her party and apologised to the Indian people for the excesses under Emergency rule. The Janata Party’s internal cracks led to the collapse of its government and in the subsequent election, a chastened Mrs Gandhi and Congress returned to power.

In Pakistan’s case, General Musharraf is not a politician willing to lose power for a few years to return to office in a subsequent election. Pakistan’s Election Commission and post-Emergency judiciary are mere instruments in the hands of the executive branch of government, which is firmly controlled by Musharraf.

Public opinion polls indicate that 70 per cent of Pakistanis want Musharraf to quit. The latest poll by US-based Terror Free Tomorrow shows 38 per cent support for PPP, 25 per cent for PML-N and only 12 per cent for PML-Q.

In the 2002 election, Pakistan’s poll manipulators gave the religious alliance MMA almost 21 per cent of seats in the National Assembly with only 11 per cent of the popular vote in a low turnout election.

This time, efforts are under way to depress the turnout with attacks on opposition rallies. Every opposition party has had some of its members killed in mysterious terrorist attacks that, for some strange reason, have not targeted the ruling PML-Q or its major ally, the MQM.

Will Musharraf learn from Indira Gandhi and let the people vote him out by letting the opposition win a two-thirds majority on election day as the polls clearly indicate or will he compound Pakistan’s misery by rigging the polls and creating a new round of confrontation? The future of Pakistan hinges on the answer to that question.

This article appeared in Indian Express on February 13, 2008