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. 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, is gradually moving towards democracy as a key to solving its chronic political, economic and social problems. Afghanistan is steadily seeking to establish its place among the democratic nations of the world.
Hitherto, the writ of the tribal chiefs and an assorted compendium of traditions, tribal customs, and mores which an Afghan was expected to know and follow without raising an eyebrow. The boast was that the most remarkable contribution this fiercely independent nation has made to human history is that it has fought and humbled 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 Vedic Sapta Sindhu (Hindustan), where, for many centuries, history of the Asian Continent was made or unmade. It has been the battleground of many Central Asian hordes of the hoary past and many warriors of nearer times.
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 the Taliban (after they had sent the Soviets packing home) by US-led NATO forces in 2002 was also the beginning of a long drawn out struggle between entrenched conservatism and nascent liberalism in Afghanistan. The Taliban, aligned with Al Qaeda, met with great set-backs in the beginning of the struggle with most of its commanders killed and its logistics largely disrupted.
As the US-NATO forces are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of the current year, it natural that Afghan government takes steps to let power rest in the hands of local elected leadership. This has opened the window to let in the 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, as many as 18 million voter cards were in circulation. Nearly 60 per cent of eligible voters cast their votes and won acclaim from many world leaders, including President Obama.
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 their vote. The Taliban called the elections a “sham”. In fact, two days prior to polling two European media persons, photographer Anja Niedringhaus (The Guardian) was killed and her colleague was seriously wounded in an attack in the Khost province. In another incident, the Taliban killed 9 at a posh Kabul restaurant. These types of incidents are meant to instill fear among the populace; the price Afghans and Kashmiris have to pay for opting for democracy.
As President Hamid Karzai cannot contest for a third term, eight candidates are in the fray for presidential election. One of the four more prominent candidates, 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 the religious constituency. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the former finance minister, 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. The former foreign minister, Zalmai Rassoul, has been National Adviser to the 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 former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, the candidate who won 31 per cent of the votes in the 2009 presidential election and wields popularity among the ethnic Tajiks, is the most potent contestant among them. A Tajik by birth, he remained close to the late Ahmad Shah Masud, veteran commander of Northern Allies against the Soviet forces. However, with his father a Pushtun, his ethnic background may prove a drawback for him as ethnicity is a strong determinant in in Afghan elections.
One conspicuous thing about 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. The Election Commissioner did not expect as many voters to come out as actually did. 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 polling authorities rush more ballot papers to the booths that experienced shortages.
Young people demonstrated great enthusiasm for the day of polling, demonstrating their inked fingers to the media, indicating they had exercised their right to vote. Voters maintained complete discipline as they stood for hours at end in a single line and in wet weather for their turn to cast votes. Moreover, many women participated in the election. 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 us to contribute”.
Democratic Afghanistan has great significance for India. 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 a vast scope of cooperation and collaboration that can be found between the two countries when their elected governments settle down. Controlling terrorism and developing bilateral trade and commerce are on their priority list of issues to address. 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.
Kashi N Pandit is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University, India)