Divergent political paths of India and Pakistan

by Saad Hafiz

In terms of history, culture, language and religions, India and Pakistan have much in common. However, the political paths of the two states have so considerably deviated that it seems unimaginable that they had shared origins. Today, despite many domestic problems that are impairing its growth, India is increasingly an important global political and economic player. Pakistan, in comparison, is trapped in a current of economic, political and social problems that have no likely solution in the foreseeable future. Sadly, both countries also remain adrift in adversity when geographical location, historical connections, socio-cultural commonalities and ethnic and linguistic affinity, should have led to harmony rather than confrontation.

There is no simple underlying reason for the disparate political development of India and Pakistan. It seems too easy to attribute India’s democracy to Hinduism and Pakistan’s frequent bouts of autocracy to Islam. A more substantive explanation may be found in the history leading to partition, including cultural, geographic and postcolonial endowment. Arguably, some key factors and choices have forged the divergent political paths of India and Pakistan such as: 1) the inclusive democratic nature and popular legitimacy of the Indian National Congress compared to the primarily elitist All India Muslim League, 2) the fraught relationship between nationalism and religion in Pakistan, 3) the fundamentally different patterns of civil-military relations in both countries, 4) the quality of post-independence leadership, success of federalism, independence of judiciary and level of political mobilisation in India and 5) the abandonment of the idea of a federal state with a weak centre and strong provinces replaced by a vertically integrated, authoritarian and centralised state structure in Pakistan.

Both countries have indistinguishable levels of extreme poverty and extreme inequality, with a growing gap between the rich and the poor. Also, at times in their histories, the two countries’ trajectories have shared some common features, such as the increasing role of religion in the public sphere. Hinduism was never India’s official religion but the rise of Hindu nationalism, which culminated in the formation of the first government led by the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1998, has taken India down an increasingly ethno-religious path witnessing the ascendency of exclusionary Hindutva forces. In early 1977, India too briefly flirted with authoritarian rule during the two years’ state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after the opposition had taken to the streets and the judiciary raised questions about the legitimacy of the election that had just reelected her for the third time. Mrs Gandhi used the state of emergency to jail her opponents and reform the constitution so that she could rule by decree. However, the overall vigour and vibrancy of Indian parliamentary democracy have overcome anti-democratic challenges thus far.

In contrast to India, the secular, democratic, pluralistic experiment never took off in Pakistan. The political leadership in Pakistan has remained elitist, feudal and unrepresentative of the Pakistani masses. Because of this class system, as Pakistan evolved, post-partition, the upper class precluded the inclusion of the lower class and therefore none of the development and resources flowed to the majority of the people. The rigid nature of the class system has obstructed Pakistan’s educational and economic progress. Moreover, during regular periods of military rule in Pakistan, the country’s political development has been hampered by the concept of a ‘controlled democracy’, which involved holding party-less elections at times. Throughout the country’s history, a highly powerful civil and military bureaucracy has acted as the shadow government of Pakistan at the expense of elected officials. Even during civilian rule, the army chief has called the shots, belying the repeated claim that Pakistan is not a “banana republic”. This means, as some suggest, that Pakistan will probably continue to be neither a democracy nor a dictatorship but something in between. Another aspect worth consideration is the straightjacket of Islamic doctrines by the Pakistani power structure, which has given rise to and nurtured the fatal disease of militancy and terrorism.

Corruption and the criminalisation of the public sphere have started to undermine the foundations of both states. In India, voters realise they have little influence over some of the decisions made by corrupt politicians, undermining the very idea of democracy. Yet even as the public spheres of both countries have become more corrupt, the judiciaries of both India and Pakistan are remarkably resilient. It was India’s courts that forced corrupt politicians — including ministers — to resign in the 1990s. And although Pakistan’s courts repeatedly bowed to military leaders in earlier decades, increased judicial activism eventually forced General Pervez Musharraf to hold elections and resign as president in 2008.

As one observes the histories of India and Pakistan, one glaring difference becomes clear. India has had an unbroken chain of democracy since its inception and adoption of its constitution in 1950. India made and stuck with a key choice that politics and democracy matter in improving people’s lives. On the other hand, Pakistan has had an unbroken chain of ineffective democratic governments, followed by dictator-led ineffective governments since its inception and adoption of its constitution in 1956. This last fact leads one to the conclusion and final hypothesis regarding the difference of political outcomes of the two countries: the crucial factor is the cycle of dictatorship and democracy in Pakistan.

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