May issue 2006

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 18 years ago

south-asia-may06Why is India a democracy and not Pakistan? This, by all means, is a very important question. And it has justly stimulated a lot of debate in response to the publication of the second book in the Cross-border Talks Series that is meant to explore relations between India and Pakistan.

The format chosen in this series being edited by David Page is simple and sensible: one Indian and one Pakistani scholar are invited to project their separate perspectives on a given subject. After the first title, Diplomatic Divide, we now have the seminal issue of democracy. In Divided by Democracy, India’s Meghnad Desai and Pakistan’s Aitzaz Ahsan have dealt with the question posed at the outset.

Expectedly, reviews published in Pakistan have generally concentrated on the case that Aitzaz has argued to explain the desecration of the idea and practice of democracy in Pakistan. Being a senior politician and author of a very perceptive interpretation of the crisis of Pakistan’s identity (The Indus Saga and The Making of Pakistan), he is eminently qualified to explain our deviations from the path of democratic dispensation. We should also not mind the fact that his analysis is likely to be influenced by his political affiliations and his intellectual commitment to the Indus Saga theory.

But Aitzaz’s task, in spite of his formidable credentials, is too daunting. A discussion of Pakistan’s democratic experience opens a Pandora’s box of interpretations that relate to not just the account of what we have made of our freedom but also to how the demand for Pakistan was conceived and pursued before Partition became a reality.

Unfortunately, it is more difficult in Pakistan to conduct a rational discourse on sensitive issues. Our unresolved contradictions seem to have encouraged a kind of ‘doublethink’ in the minds of our intelligentsia. One expression of this is the raging conflict between the religious and liberal elements in the country and the inability of the rulers to sort it out in the context of any specific scheme of governance.

Be that as it may, Divided by Democracy provides a thoughtful comparison of two countries that should have been united in their historical experience. After all, as David Page has pointed out in his introduction, Meghnad Desai’s account of the development of Indian democracy begins in the nineteenth century when Indian politicians sought the introduction of Westminster-style institutions in India. In many ways, the Founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was as inspired by the British model as the Congress leaders.

So why has India succeeded in establishing democracy and why is Jinnah’s Pakistan forever struggling to become a democracy? I have raised this question again because the fact that India is now recognised as a functioning democracy is as intriguing as Pakistan’s political digressions. At this point, I am reminded of observations Strobe Talbott had made in his book, Engaging India: Diplomacy, Demoracy and the Bomb. Published last year, it is an account of the negotiations that the United States had held with India after India’s nuclear tests in May 1998.

This is how Talbott expressed his thoughts: “Indian democracy has always been a mystery bordering on a miracle, not so much because of how it works as because it works at all. In many respects, India seemed destined, even designed, never to be a democracy, or to fail if it ever tried to become one. For centuries it was a victim of invasion from the north-west. Then it was the large colony of a small island off the coast of Europe. Its independence coincided with a bloody and divisive conflict over partition. Its hierarchical, caste-based social order was — and will be as long as it lasts — at odds with the very idea of political equality. Its economic order permits the acquisition of fabulous wealth alongside abject poverty on a massive scale. Add to those factors the uninspiring record of other countries that broke free of colonialism after World War II only to wallow in authoritarianism for decades afterward, and Indian democracy would have seemed far from a sure bet in 1947.”

Another source of amazement, for common observers, are the differences that emerged between the two countries even when they came, in a sense, from the same womb, that of British India. A list of what divides them may not be as extensive as the record of their similarities. Much of the impulse for the ongoing peace process comes from this inherent cultural and social affinity. In fact, the change of attitude that has developed between the two Punjabs has been described by one commentator as the “end of the sixty-year-old civil war of the Punjabis.”

However, Aitzaz has underlined “some essential and primordial differences between Pakistan and India, which led to the divide called Partition.” Here, he refers to his theory of the two regions — the Indus region and what is now India. But why were the Muslims of the minority provinces in the forefront of the freedom movement? Besides, why were the oppressed Muslims of Bengal the dominant rationale for the creation of Pakistan?

Interestingly, Aitzaz has rightly pointed out that “the effect of divergence and difference of religion, dogma and ritual between the Hindus and Muslims in the partition of the subcontinent is frequently exaggerated.” He has also conceded that despite many apparently irreconcilable causes of tension and conflict, “harmonious and peaceful coexistence between the communities remained the rule rather than the exception.” It was the Raj that began to create a communal Hindu-Muslim divide in Bengal and initiated policies that were meant to “create a major regional disparity between the Indus region and the rest of India.” This emphasis on Indus-India disparity tends to distract Aitzaz somewhat from concentrating on the drift that, as enshrined in the politics of the Muslim League, led to the creation of Pakistan.

At one level, the demand for Pakistan was embedded in the principle of democracy — allowing Muslims in provinces in which they were in a majority to vote for it. At another level, the demand made on the basis of religion could be seen as an escape from democracy because permanent majorities and permanent minorities had to be retained in the two countries. In addition, any justification for dividing a country on the basis of religion could be extended to further divisions on the basis, for instance, of ethnicity, language or sect. That is how we have to come to terms with the separation of East Pakistan.

Coming back to the question of why India is a working democracy, one might think that the task assigned to Meghnad Desai, an economist of international repute who has spent the last 40 years at the London School of Economics, is more difficult. However, he has done a good job in developing the thesis that it was the wise leadership of the Congress, particularly of Nehru, that steered the adoption of a constitution that chose universal adult franchise.

This, as Meghnad puts it, “was a revolutionary step just because nothing in Indian history justified it.” It defied the entire structure of Hindu society. Compare this initiative with how the Islamisation campaign remains a barrier to modernity in Pakistan. India chose a modern democratic republican framework. It is also worth remembering that Dr Ambedkar was one of the principal architects of that constitution. He had risen from untouchable status and there was a time when no one would sit next to him or work with him.

Yes, “it was a happy accident” that Nehru lasted long enough to ensure that the new democratic polity took deep roots during the first 17 years after Independence. Meghnad rightly notes that “Pakistan by contrast did not have this good fortune.” Yet, Nehru’s contribution did not rest only on his longevity. He was “the first among post-colonial leaders to lead a large country and he stayed a democrat.” To further underline Nehru’s role, Meghnad suggests that “having had nearly two decades of a democratic leadership at its start, India got addicted to democracy.”

There were, of course, some other crucial factors to protect democracy in India. The Indian judiciary, though appointed by the executive, is independent by tradition and practice. Interestingly, Meghnad gives credit to the fissiparous tendency within the Congress — typical of Indian society. “Inasmuch as it brought together diverse factions, it also fell foul of their desire for self-assertion, especially that of the ambitious regional satraps who represented some of these factions.”

Meghnad begins his essay with a reference to elections held in May 2004 that have specifically brought “India and its democracy to global attention.”

Congress and its coalition of 18 parties had won by a narrow margin against all expectations. It was the fourteenth general election with upward of 600 million voters in 28 states and three union territories. It was conducted peacefully and fairly, using electronic voting machines and voter identity cards.

This is how Meghnad underscores this achievement: “Everything worked in a clockwork fashion in a country where the locals are the first to deride their own ability to organise even a small event efficiently. Yet India conducted an election with more modern equipment and fewer doubts about the legitimacy of the process than, for example, the USA in 2000 or even 2004.”

The credibility of the electoral exercise is, for me, the foundation of democracy. This is one area in which Pakistan has never been able to succeed. We have noted how Meghnad has commenced his essay with an analysis of the May 2004 Indian elections. Let us compare this with the opening lines of Aitzaz’s composition: “When I was asked to contribute to this volume, I was a shade apprehensive and unsure. More questions than answers rushed to mind. Perplexing questions. How would one categorise Pakistan’s political system: dictatorship or democracy, liberal or fundamentalist, civil or praetorian?”

And the questions continue. In fact, question marks that are invested in Aitzaz’s essay would add up to a big number. But the title of his essay, ‘Why Pakistan is not a democracy’ does not use a question mark. On the other hand, Meghnad has one: ‘Why is India a democracy?’

I need not dwell on Aitzaz’s arguments in any detail because we are so familiar with them and they are so obvious and, also, very valid. Thus, he says, “while India in its first decade had one prime minister and several army chiefs, Pakistan had several prime ministers and one army chief. Stability in the one office and instability in the other institution naturally reflected upon their power denominations inter se.”

Aitzaz has touched upon all aspects and sources of Pakistan’s political derelictions. After India was projected as a hostile enemy, the issue of Pakistan’s survival was linked with a powerful army and a justification for the “otherwise illegitimate military rule.” The refusal of the ruling elite to introduce meaningful land reforms is seen as “one of the most debilitating factors in the progress and development of the political system in Pakistan.”

Aitzaz has summarised the role of the superior judiciary with some necessary details. According to him, the judiciary has been consistent and constant in one respect: “It has always legitimised authoritarian and military interventions in the political structures of Pakistan. Not once has it invalidated the incumbent regime of a military adventurer.”

All these, to be sure, are very depressing thoughts. In his conclusion, however, Aitzaz has made a brave attempt to show optimism. Here are the last lines of his essay: “The fact that even military dictators are convinced that full suffrage elections are unavoidable and inevitable is testimony that the spirit of democracy in Pakistan is indeed irrepressible. I believe that one day it must prevail to the fullest extent by wresting complete supremacy and sovereignty.”

Thank you, Aitzaz, for pointing towards the rainbow on a distant horizon.

Ghazi Salahuddin is a respected senior journalist in Pakistan. He currently works with the daily The News and the Geo television network.

No more posts to load