By K.N. Pandita
April 5. 2014 will be another memorable day in the chequered history of contemporary Afghanistan. It is also a day of triumph for Afghanistan’s transition from tribal lawlessness to democratic order. The exercise will be seen as a very sane and sensible replacement of traditional authoritarian regimes or the regressive theocratic arrangement of medieval character. Noticeably at long last, the world’s hitherto most conservative society, totally alien to any form of popular government and recognized civil code except the one forged by the tribal chiefs as and how it pleased them, is gradually inclining towards democracy as a key to the solution of her chronic political, economic and social problems. Afghanistan is steadily seeking her place among the democratic nations of the world.
Hitherto, it was the writ of the tribal chiefs and an assorted compendium of traditions, tribal customs and mores which an Afghan needed to know and follow without raising eyebrow. The boast was that the most remarkable contribution this fiercely independent nation has made to human history is that it has fought against and humbled the powers that tried to dominate it in the course of her long history.
Historically speaking, Afghanistan, the ancient Bakhtar (Bactria), has been the gateway for fabulous Sapt Sindhu (Hindustan), where, for many centuries, history of the Asian Continent was made or unmade. It has been the battle ground of many Central Asian hordes of the hoary past and many warriors of nearer times.
But it has also been the melting pot of some celebrated communities like the Shamanists, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Judaists, and, of course, Islamists. In the course of history, the ancient Bakhtar had thrown up great centers of art, architecture and learning: Gandhara and Herat Schools of art and miniature, Bamiyan Buddhist heritage (now destroyed), Nav Bahar (Nava Vihara) the great Buddhist temple whose head priest, after he was converted to Islam and given the name Sohl, became the Prime Minster of Abbasid Caliphs, and Balkh (Bhakri of Vedic description) where Zoroaster was born and where the descendents of Alexander the Great established the first Greco-Bactrian kingdom.
But the ouster of Taliban—after they had sent the Soviets packing home— by the US-led NATO forces in 2002 was also the beginning of a long drawn struggle between entrenched conservatism and nascent liberalism in Afghanistan. Taliban aligned with Al Qaeda, met with great set back in the beginning of the struggle. Most of its commanders were killed and its logistics were largely disrupted.
As the US-NATO forces are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of the current year, it is but natural that Afghan government takes steps to let power rest in the hands of local elected leadership. This opened the window to let in fresh air of democracy into Afghanistan. The last bastion of conservatism seems to be on the threshold of far reaching change in which the shift is towards a populist government led by the elected representatives of the people.
On 5 April, a nation of 31 million strong saw 12 million of its eligible electorate casting votes at as many as 28,500 polling centres across the country guarded by a strong security force of more than 352,000 personnel. Though only 12 million voters were to exercise their right to franchise, yet as many as 18 million voter cards were in circulation. Nearly 60 per cent eligible voters cast their vote and won acclamation from many world leaders, including President Obama of the US.
Obviously, detractors of Afghan freedom would want to disrupt the democratic exercise by issuing threats to the people for coming out of their homes to cast the vote. The Taliban called elections a “sham”. In fact two days prior to polling two European media persons, both ladies, were shot at by the marauders. Photographer Anja Niedringhaus representing The Guardian of London was gunned down and her colleague was seriously wounded after attack in Khost province. In a Taliban blitzkrieg at a posh Kabul restaurant, at least 9 persons were gunned down and some were wounded. It was meant to instill fear among the people. This reminds me of identical situation in Kashmir in disturbed Kashmir. That is the price Afghans and Kashmiris have to pay for opting for democracy. Isn’t that a way to rationally deal with entrenched conservatism.
As President Hamid Karzai cannot contest for the third term, eight candidates are in the fray for presidential election. Of the four more prominent candidates, only one, namely Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, is a former warlord of 1990 war fame who has links with radical Taliban. He is also reported to have met with late Osama bin Laden. Sayyaf still holds sway over religious constituency. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the former finance minister, had pulled just 3 per cent votes in 2009 presidential elections. He is a technocrat by profession but is in charge of the commission on change of transiting responsibility from withdrawing US to local administrators. Zalmai Rassoul, the former foreign minister has been National Adviser to Hamid Karzai government and is said to be close to him. He is a Pushtun and holds a medical degree. Having lived in Italy with King Zahir Shah, he is fluent in five languages including French, Italian and English. But the candidate who had won 31 per cent votes in 2009 presidential election and wields popularity among the ethnic Tajiks is the former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and a potent contestant among all the eight. A Tajik by birth, he had remained close to late Ahmad Shah Masud, the veteran commander of Northern Allies against the Soviet forces. His ethnic background may prove a drawback for him though his father was a Pushtun and has a large circle of Pushtun friends. Ethnic factor does have a strong role in Afghan elections.
One conspicuous thing of the April 5 elections was that in one-third of provinces, there was shortage of ballot papers and the polling had to be suspended for some time or extend beyond the schedule. Actually the Election Commissioner did not expect as many voters to come out as did in practice. Therefore only a limited number of ballot papers were sent to a number of polling booths. But the enthusiasm of people, especially the women voters was so great as to make the polling authorities rush more ballot papers to the booths that had experienced shortage.
Vote counting will be carried out from 6 to 20 April, preliminary result will be announced on 26 April. If no candidate wins +50 per cent votes, then there will be run off poll on 28 May between two top runners. A squad of 2 lakh strong acted as observers across the country. Cities were well protected against any major attack by the Taliban.
Youngsters demonstrated great enthusiasm for the day of polling and they demonstrated their inked fingers to the media saying they had exercised their right to vote. The voters maintained complete discipline as they stood for hours at end in a single line and in wet weather to wait for their turn to cast the vote. There are many women candidates who want to be voted to the parliament. Shamsi Hasani, a woman artist twittered: “I have voted for my country”. Samira Huria, a political activist said,”Massive turnout of women voters is a big slap to all those who want to block u s to contribute”.
Democratic Afghanistan has great significance for our country. All of the presidential candidates have very friendly disposition towards India. Many among them were educated in India and Indian democracy has inspired the Afghan leaders immensely. A very important and comprehensive role is awaiting India in Afghanistan once a democratically elected government is installed in Kabul. Presidential candidates in Afghanistan are closely watching the progress of parliamentary elections in India. So do Indian observers keep a close watch on the outcome of April 5 presidential election in Afghanistan. There is vast scope of cooperation and collaboration between the two countries when their elected governments settle down. Controlling terrorism and developing bilateral trade and commerce are on their priority list of business. Indeed a new and unprecedented era of cooperation between New Delhi and Kabul is underway. It will have far reaching impact on India’s relations with Pakistan, Central Asia, China and Iran.