The Arab Lessons
While it will be little premature to suggest that a democratic revolution is sweeping across the Arab world at the moment, the Arabs are no doubt undergoing a great period of turmoil. It started in Tunisia and has spread to Egypt (some argue that the disturbances in Egypt predated that in Tunisia) and Yemen. As this issue of our magazine carries an essay on the subject, what I propose to do here is to find out the implication of the Arab development for India.
Let me begin with the implications easy to discern. Many Indians settled in Egypt are coming back in chartered flights. Indian business in Egypt has been hurt. It may be noted that India is Egypt’s third largest trading partner after the US and Italy in recent years and is the largest importer of Egyptian products. India is the 12th largest foreign investor in Egypt with investments close to about $2 billion by 2010.
Some Indian companies like Marico (India’s leading Consumer Products & Services groups having global presence in Beauty and Wellness space) and Dabur have temporarily shut down their units in Egypt and trade between the two countries has been disrupted. Many others such as Asian Paints, Emami, Wipro, Ranbaxy, Tata Consultancy and Maruti Suzuki are worried. There is a also a concern whether India’s shipping movements through Suez Canal will be affected, as some opposition leaders of Egypt are threatening to close it, mainly to punish Israel and the Western countries, particularly the United States. Importantly, as oil & gas comprise one vital component in India’s imports from Egypt, the prices in petroleum products, which have been constantly rising, leading to further inflation, will become all the more vulnerable.
Now, let us talk of the implications that are comparatively difficult to comprehend. First, Egypt, technically an African country, is a part of the Arab World, with which India has been closely connected since time immemorial. And here, Islam constitutes an important link. What could be concerning is that going by the current history of the region, whenever any authoritarian ruler in West Asia/Arab world has been overthrown through street riots and violent demonstrations, the country concerned has not necessarily come under democratic forces; it has under come under the grab of fundamentalist forces. Look at what happened in Iran. Even Iraq, despite the presence of Americans there, is turning back towards the middle ages, thanks to the fundamentalist Shia leaders who now control the country after the overthrow of the Sadam Hussein regime. Equally instructive is what happened in the Gaza Strip. Street protests against the then Palestine leadership of Yassar Arafat, coupled with American pressure, resulted in an election that both the Palestinian Authority and Israel said was a mistake. The fundamentalist extremist Hamas got 70 per cent of the vote, and quickly set to executing moderate Palestinians and firing rockets into Israel.
The situation in Egypt looks similar, given the fact that the extremist religious outfit Muslim Brotherhood has been the most organised opposition outfit against autocratic regime of President Hosni Mubarak. If we go by the outfit’s assertions, then Egyptians should be ready to be ruled by “Sharias” and must wage a war against Israel. “Islam is the solution” is what the Muslim Brotherhood proclaims. The situation is all the more serious given the fact that when the Pew Research Center surveyed the Arab world in April last year, it found that 82 per cent of Egyptians support stoning as a punishment for adultery, 84 per cent favour the death penalty for Muslims who leave the religion, and in the struggle between “modernisers” and “fundamentalists,” 59 per cent identify with fundamentalists. It is also noteworthy that al-Qaeda has historic roots in Egypt. Its No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri had led a failed campaign in the mid-1990s to set up a purist Islamic state in Egypt. It has also boasted many key Egyptian operatives, including Mohamed Atta, a hijacker-pilot of the September 11, 2001, suicide attacks on the United States. In fact, it is believed that Egypt sends largest number of foot soldiers to al-Qaeda to spew venom, particularly in West Asia, Central Asia and South Asia.
Naturally, India has reasons to worry. Victory of the fundamentalists is victory of the fundamentalists in India, too. Let us have no illusion that the problem in Kashmir has no more anything to do with the so-called azadi. The movement there has degenerated into something that will not be satisfied until, as this column had pointed out once, Kashmir comes under “Islamic rule”. Likewise, the demonstrations in Arab streets will further motivate the already ascendant Islamic fundamentalists in Kerala, which, until recently, was one of our greatest symbols of secularism, with Hindus, Christians and Muslims peacefully coexisting and prospering together. So could be the situations in the Muslims-dominated districts of West Bengal and Assam. Interestingly, all these three states – Assam, West Bengal and Kerala – are going to have elections shortly. Given the perverse vote-bank politics in Indian polity, it remains to be seen how demands from these fundamentalist elements will be handled in the days to come.
As I write this, the news has come that the High Court in Kerala has overlooked the concerns of the Reserve Bank of India and given green light to the proposal to set up “Islamic Banks” in the state. Obviously, India’s policy towards Israel is going to come under increasing strains, given the known antipathy of these elements and their myriad supporters in major political parties surviving on Muslim votes towards that country, the only genuine democracy in the vast region stretching from North Africa to South Asia.
The Arab unrest could have some of other implications on the Indian polity, which are not necessarily bad per se. More than the autocracy, the unrest is against the rampant corruption that the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen have legitimised and the riches of the country that the rulers there have diverted to safe bank accounts in the Western banks. But then this is not the only semblance of similarity with India. More important is the fact that almost all these rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen have prepared enough grounds that they would be succeeded by their sons in power. Of course, Mubarak and Ali Abdullah Salehnow (Yemen’s President for the last 32 years) have now promised that their sons would not succeed them. But people do not believe them. This has got great meaning for India whose polity is systematically witnessing the consolidation of the dangerous trend of dynastic politics. As was once written by this columnist, India has many more political dynasties today than it had in the past. Taken together, there might be at least 1,000 to 1,500 political families in India that have successfully promoted dynastic successions at various levels, national or provincial. In other words, India is now politically controlled by 1000 to 1500 families, though not necessarily all of them are of equal importance.
Last but not least is the fact that the immediate pretexts for the unrest in the streets of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen have been rising unemployment of their youth and uncontrolled food inflation. India is not faring better on these two fronts. Our political leadership seems least interested in controlling the food inflation: onion prices rising as high as 286 per cent, that of vegetables 107.6 per cent and potatoes 47 per cent over the last one year. And this despite the fact that farmers producing them are not the beneficiaries and the prices have come down considerably in the wholesale markets.
All this is not to suggest that India is going to explode. Unlike that of the Arabs, our democratic roots have been much stronger despite our many faults. We regularly change our governments peacefully. We have got many more outlets that absorb our anger and frustrations. And most importantly, we have a powerful and independent judiciary to protect our fundamental rights. But it would be just as wrong to assume that we have nothing to learn from the causes of the revolt in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen.
By Prakash Nanda