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S U B C O N T I N E N T A L   D R I F T
All Shook Up
Why 1999 was South Asia's most unstable year of the decade
By APARISIM GHOSH

December 23, 1999
Web posted at 7 a.m. Hong Kong time, 6 p.m. EDT


Can you recall the last time the subcontinent did not have a roller coaster of a year? I didn't think so. Well, 1999 was never going to be an exception. All the things that have made South Asia such an shaky place this decade--a hung parliament in India, restive generals in Pakistan and the unending civil war in Sri Lanka--were very much in evidence in January. By December, they had combined to make this the least stable year of the '90s. And here are the four people who helped stir the pot:

    ASIA BUZZ
Subcontinental Drift: Crunch Time in Colombo
Next Tuesday's election could end the civil war--and not just in Sri Lanka
- Thursday, Dec. 16, 1999

Subcontinental Drift: Those Who Ignore History...
A refresher course on Pakistan's past
- Thursday, Dec. 9, 1999

Subcontinental Drift: Musharraf Talks the Talk
But he walks in a different direction
- Thursday, Dec. 2, 1999

Subcontinental Drift: Words Are Not Enough
The diplomatic art of obfuscation
- Thursday, Nov. 25, 1999

Subcontinental Drift: Choose Your Own Faith
Under Indian law, it's allowed
- Thursday, Nov. 18, 1999

Subcontinental Drift: No One Wins
The dust settles after the papal visit, and everyone's covered in dirt
- Thursday, Nov. 11, 1999

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• Atal Behari Vajpayee. The best thing that happened to India's Prime Minister was the toppling of his government in April. Asked to stay on in charge of a five-month caretaker administration, Vajpayee enjoyed what most politicians can only fantasize about: power without responsibility to parliament. No longer answerable to disparate coalition partners, he could be firm and bold, and the Kargil war presented the perfect opportunity to do just that. As Indian troops battled in the Himalayan heights against Islamic intruders and Pakistani army regulars, Vajpayee put his vaunted oratorical skills to good use, whipping up nationwide jingoism. When the intruders were repulsed, he was able to take most of the credit. This strengthened his position within his Bharatiya Janata Party. Hard-liners who had previously dismissed him as a weak moderate now acknowledged him as a war hero and vote-getter. In September's general elections, the BJP-led coalition rode to power on Vajpayee's coattails.

• Pervez Musharraf. Generals who lose on the battlefield are expected to limp away into limbo to lick their wounds. Instead, Pakistan's army chief brazenly seized total power in a bloodless October coup, ousting the hugely unpopular Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. More ironically still, many Pakistanis hailed Musharraf as a savior, forgetting the debacle in Kargil--which he had masterminded--and the country's long history of disastrous dictatorships. The general won some early kudos by cracking down on some prominent tax offenders and loan defaulters. But at the end of the year, there was no indication that the military man had any workable solutions for the country's acute economic problems.

• Sonia Gandhi. Far and away the loser of the year. The Congress chief began 1999 by hopping into bed with some of the most despised figures in Indian politics: former Bihar boss Laloo Prasad Yadav and Imelda Marcos-wannabe Jayalalitha Jayaram. Gandhi used the latter to topple the BJP-led coalition government and stakes her own claim to rule. She was left with egg on her face when Congress was unable to muster enough support in parliament to form a coalition government of its own. She then seethed from the sidelines while Vajpayee gained glory from the Kargil war. Worse was to follow: a tainted Congress received its worst ever drubbing in the September election. While Gandhi won both constituencies that she contested, she couldn't deflect blame for her party's poor showing.

• Muhammed Nawaz Sharif. At the start of the year, he was the most powerful politician in the subcontinent. At the end, he was in jail, facing the possibility of being hanged. Along the way, he frittered away a strong democratic mandate and plumbed new depths in administrative ineptitude. The same people who voted Sharif to power in a landslide in 1997 now loathe everything he stands for. He's pulled himself out of the doghouse before (he was ejected from the prime ministership in 1993, remember?), but Sharif will need to be a political Houdini to escape from this one.

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