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EVEN the country was readying to witness the ‘grand’ swearing in ceremony of the Vajpayee cabinet, news trickled in of a military coup in Pakistan. Like Ayub Khan in the ’50s, Yahya Khan in the ’60s and Zia-ul-Haq in the ’70s, Pervez Musharraf has become the fourth army chief in Pakistan to disrupt civilian rule. And though, at the time of writing, he has neither suspended the Constitution nor declared himself Chief Martial Law Administrator, the stars for democracy in Pakistan do not appear propitious.

Behind the official disclaimers of concern, one senses a glee that the upstartish Nawaz Sharif has met his Waterloo. Few in this country retain a soft spot for him after the Kargil misadventure, just as few believed our defence minister’s remark that the Pakistani pm had been kept out of the loop in the planning of our recent ‘near war’. It appears likely that the differences between Sharif and Musharraf widened once it became evident that the Pakistani plan had misfired, be it because of the Indian fight-back or American pressure.

Whatever the reasons, Pakistani state and society has of late been marked by serious fissures. Some contradictions, in particular relating to civil-military matters, have a long history. Nawaz Sharif’s concerted efforts to accumulate power by discrediting opposition politicians, appointing a pliant President, curbing the Supreme Court and intimidating the press, had all caused deep dismay. In the face of a deepening economic crisis, the continuing ‘ethnic strife’ in Karachi, and the inability to rein in Taliban inspired militants, the move to replace the army chief was obviously seen as the last straw – particularly by the one ‘institution’ still retaining power. Not surprisingly, protests about the coup were more vociferous outside the country than within.

Nevertheless, even from a narrowly nationalistic perspective, there is little to feel happy about the recent developments. An unsettled and insecure Pakistan can easily lead to increased instability in the region. And its nuclear arsenal can only add to the anxiety. Reports suggesting Musharraf’s links with the Taliban or his unhappiness at de-escalating Kargil do not augur well for us. A democratic-civilian leadership, even if flawed, is what is in our best interests.

These developments should nudge the Indian leadership into taking a fresh look at the quality of our civil-military relationship. The recent brouhaha over the dismissal of navy chief Vishnu Bhagwat or the storm created by the ‘release’ of Brigadier S. Singh’s letters over the conduct of the Kargil conflict, indicate that our assumption of a neutral, professional and apolitical armed forces may be somewhat flawed.

The capital’s grapevine is routinely abuzz with stories of kickbacks and deals, of collusion and conflict between officers, both serving and retired, and bureaucrats and politicians. More than the turf battles over transfers, postings, or budgets is the growing unease about the escalating role of the forces in matters civilian. From flood control to curbing riots and insurgencies, if we have to call in the armed forces then why be surprised if one day they start believing that they can run the country better.

Despite such a situation having come to pass with both our western and eastern neighbours, India has remained a civilian democracy. This is due substantially to our institutions and traditions. To, however, take these as a given would be short-sighted. Our political class is hardly held in high esteem. The latest South Asia Human Development Report points out that 65 per cent of the sample interviewees think that our leaders are corrupt and 80 per cent believe that politicians have become more corrupt over the last five years.

Equally, reports about senior officers of our armed forces briefing members of a particular political party, and in the party offices, about the conduct of the Kargil operations, if true, are extremely dangerous. As is the proclivity of retired officers to seek political pastures. Admiral Bhagwat’s open campaigning against the defence minister, and his expose of the open favouring of select officers by politicians, hardly paints the picture of an apolitical and insulated force. Not dissimilar to what Sharif was attempting in Pakistan.

Without wanting to sound alarmist, those interested in the democratic health of our polity should take urgent steps to correct the anomalies creeping into the system. The genuine demands of the forces – from equipment to working conditions – need to be addressed; so do reforms ensuring greater transpa-rency and accountability. For far too long our establishment has hidden behind a veil of secrecy, citing national security considerations. This has to change if we do not wish to go the way of our neighbours.

Harsh Sethi