On Thursday, Iraqis learnt that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party had won a landslide at the country’s provincial polls. They also learnt a key lesson to tell the rest of the world: security is a prerequisite for democracy.
The fact that what is newsworthy here is Maliki’s victory, and not the very occurrence of elections, underscores the sea change in Iraq. In 2005, with terrorists attacking polling stations, and Sunnis—Iraq’s ethnic minority—boycotting the democratic franchise, it was a miracle that elections took place. In 2006, the insurgency turned into a nascent civil war, prompting serious claims of splitting Iraq into separate ethnic states. Three years later, elections in a unified country have proceeded smoothly; indigenous security forces kept order, and Sunnis voted en masse.
Iraq has gone from being a near-failed state to a pillar of democracy in West Asia thanks to a fresh US counterinsurgency strategy instituted in January 2007. Early on, critics wrote off the “surge” because they thought that political compromise—primarily between Shias and Sunnis—was the precondition for ending violence. These critics got it backwards: Violence has to be ended before political compromise can be reached. Now, voters have repudiated sectarian parties, embracing Maliki’s nationalist one.
India has seen its fair share of insurgencies that make demands at gunpoint, from the Nagas just after independence to the current Naxalites. Welcoming north-eastern tribes or Kashmiri Muslims into the nation’s mainstream democratic fold is important, yet political overture in the absence of law and order becomes empty appeasement. When Sikh militants decided to use the bullet instead of the ballot in the 1980s, there was no arguing with Julio Ribeiro’s “bullet for bullet” tactic. In contrast, the Union government’s weak attempts at negotiation in the early 1990s only emboldened insurgency in Punjab.
As in Iraq, counter-insurgency needs a smart strategy that emphasizes socio-economics. But quelling violence remains a basic condition to provide India’s insurgency-prone areas with the same economic growth as the rest of the country. This stability isn’t sufficient, but it’s necessary for democracy and prosperity.
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