By Christophe Jaffrelot

Why India Is Democratic and Pakistan Is Not

India, Pakistan, and Democracy: Solving the Puzzle of Divergent Paths

By Philip Oldenburg

Since 1995, when the historian Ayesha Jalal's pathbreaking and controversial book Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia was published, there has been no serious study comparing the political trajectories of India and Pakistan. Those who have tried to fill this gap have succumbed to the temptation of attributing India's democracy to Hinduism and Pakistan's autocracy to Islam -- a reductionist and not particularly productive approach, since religion is usually only secondary in explaining political trajectories, whether it is Indonesia's democratization or Sri Lanka's march to dictatorship. In the remarkable India, Pakistan, and Democracy, Philip Oldenburg, a research scholar at Columbia University, is wise enough not to resort to such sociocultural explanations. Instead, he examines historical, political, sociological, cultural, and external factors to explain the reasons why India and Pakistan diverged.

Oldenburg is quick to dispel some common misunderstandings about India and Pakistan, the first being that they had similar experiences during the colonial era. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the British began gradually devolving power to local authorities in several provinces across India. They did not pursue such reform very far in the North-West Frontier Province and Punjab, two provinces that would make up the bulk of Pakistan after the 1947 partition. Both territories were important military recruitment grounds for the Raj and were located along its restive western frontier, where devolution was considered a security threat. Whereas several of the provinces India inherited from the Raj had experience with some democracy, Pakistan inherited two highly militarized provinces with no such background, laying the groundwork for the country's military-bureaucratic ethos. Even more, India was born with an intact bureaucratic apparatus in Delhi, whereas Pakistan had to build an entire government in 1947 under a state of emergency.

There was also more popular support for India at the time it was created than there was for Pakistan. The Indian National Congress, the torchbearer of India's nationalist movement, had enjoyed mass support since the 1920s, when Mohandas Gandhi became the party's leader. The Pakistani nationalist movement, the Muslim League, was not popular at all among Indian Muslims until the mid-1940s, just before partition. As a result, writes Oldenburg, referring to his famous 1985 Journal of Asian Studies article, one of the foremost on the 1971 breakup of East and West Pakistan, Pakistan was "a place insufficiently imagined" among those who would eventually live there. Feeling that lack of popular support, Muslim League leaders were hesitant to let other political parties develop once the country was created. Additionally, they feared that parties would divide an already weak nation. Since independence, the government has tried to limit Pakistan's political liberalization by introducing notions such as "controlled democracy," which has involved holding partyless elections at times. India's party system, on the other hand, is a venerable and robust arena for aggregating and articulating citizens' interests, and the field of parties is ever expanding.

Pakistan's need to forge a collective identity after 1947 was complicated by its ethnolinguistic arithmetic: the political and military center of power was in West Pakistan, but 55 percent of the population lived in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Pakistan's elites in the west of the country could not uphold democracy without loosing power to those in the east. Centralization and authoritarianism were the logical next steps. These were encouraged by the Punjabi-dominated army, which seized power for the first time in 1958. In one of the most interesting chapters of his book, Oldenburg writes about the attempt of Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, to impose Urdu -- a language spoken by a minority of the population -- as the national language, sparking protests among the Bengali-speaking majority in East Pakistan, which seceded during a violent war and became Bangladesh in 1971. In contrast, a 40 percent plurality of Indians spoke Hindi, and India tried to diffuse any ethnolinguistic tensions in the years after partition by recognizing several official languages -- including English -- and redrawing the federal map along linguistic lines to give each group its own administrative unit. Any account of the diverging paths of the two countries in the 1950s must start from this baseline.


Oldenburg does not ignore the similarities between India and Pakistan -- and he acknowledges the possibility that they may be growing more similar. In fact, his narrative is divided into two parts -- before 1977 and after 1977 -- for this very reason. In early 1977, India was two years into a state of emergency that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared after the opposition took to the streets and the judiciary raised questions about the legitimacy of the election that had just reelected her for the third time. She used the state of emergency to jail her opponents and reform the constitution, so that she could rule by decree. Meanwhile, Pakistan's president, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a strong politician, had just finished implementing a new constitution, with which he established a parliamentary system and devolved more power to the provinces. By the end of 1977, however, India had returned to democracy, a form of government it has maintained since; General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, meanwhile, had deposed Bhutto and returned Pakistan to absolute control of the military. What might have been an instance of the countries' paths crossing has been, so far, the point at which they started to diverge once and for all.

Still, the countries' trajectories share 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 a government led by the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1998, has taken India down an increasingly ethnoreligious path. BJP rule marginalized religious minorities and led to many anti-Muslim riots across India in the 1990s and communal violence in Gujarat in 2002. Oldenburg concludes that the Hindu nationalists "succeeded in putting Muslims 'in their place,' as second-class citizens."

Islam has always been Pakistan's official religion, but under the early civilian rulers and the first military dictator, Muhammad Ayub Khan, there were few provisions that discriminated against religious minorities. The situation started to change during the Bhutto administration. Bhutto gave Islam a bigger role in the political arena and declared the Ahmadis, a small Islamic sect, to be non-Muslim. Zia went even further, introducing some aspects of Islamic law into the county's legal system. Today, Islamist groups have unprecedented influence in the country, not only because they are popular among some segments of the population but also because some of them have been convenient tools for the military to use against India. Now, they are threatening to turn Pakistan into an Islamic state, although that possibility is remote because of the strength of Pakistan's army -- which is staunchly secular (or has been so far) -- and the resilience of its civil society and judiciary.

Corruption and the criminalization of the public sphere have started to undermine the foundations of both states. In India, voters realize they have little influence over some of the decisions made by corrupt politicians, undermining the very idea of democracy. If, as Lord Acton famously said, "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," then the situation in Pakistan is even worse. The most recent evidence came during last year's flooding, when politicians disassembled dams and risked putting entire towns under water in order to protect their own lands. There is a difference of degree in the corruption of the two countries, but the nature of the problem is the same in both. 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.

Local politics in India and Pakistan are based on hierarchical social orders -- castes among Hindus, biraderis (clans) among Muslims, and tribes among both -- which have given rise to clientelistic arrangements among local groups and parties. Yet social hierarchies have relaxed as the power of landed elites has waned. But as Oldenburg rightly emphasizes, this process is more pronounced in India, where the so-called lower castes, including the Dalits ("untouchables"), have gained some political influence. This is not to say that India has become egalitarian; Oldenburg acknowledges the growing gap between the rich and the poor. The situation of peasants in remote states such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand is critical. Just as some of Pakistan's desperately poor have turned to the Taliban because they claim to represent some form of social justice, peasants in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand have turned to Maoist insurgents. Of course, even though the similarities between India and Pakistan are striking, these trends are not likely to result in a major convergence of the two countries anytime soon, as Oldenburg rightly concludes. Since 1977, the differences between them have grown, and they are now less a difference of degree than a difference of nature.


Oldenburg devotes a fascinating chapter to India and Pakistan's "foreign influences." His section on India is less than four pages, which is understandable considering that New Delhi was neutral during the Cold War and has made a point of staying aloof from any alliances in order to preserve its sovereignty since.

Pakistan, in contrast, has had no such luxury. Since partition, Pakistan has defined itself in opposition to India. Of course, one could argue that such a definition has even deeper roots: the founders of the Muslim League certainly defined the Pakistani project against Hindus. But the geopolitical dimension of this rivalry changed completely after partition. Since 1947, Pakistan has viewed India as an existential threat -- a threat that was heightened during the Indian-Pakistani wars over Kashmir in 1947 and 1948; with the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, which many Pakistanis would argue was under the aegis of New Delhi; and when India got the nuclear bomb in 1974 and moved closer to the Soviet Union, from which it received other sophisticated weapons.

If existential fear is the reason Pakistan turned to the United States for arms and money, fear of communism is the reason the United States provided them. In its obsessive quest to contain the spread of communism, the United States used Pakistan as a bulwark against China, the Soviet Union, and nonaligned India and later as a staging ground for aiding the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan. By the 1980s, as Oldenburg rightly points out, Pakistan had become a rentier state, exploiting its strategic location at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Middle East to receive arms and cash. While in office, U.S. President Ronald Reagan sent more than $3 billion to the Pakistani mujahideen to fight in Afghanistan. After 9/11, U.S. support -- which had dwindled in the 1990s because of Islamabad's nuclear proliferation and recognition of the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan -- resumed. The George W. Bush administration sent $11 billion to Pakistan, including $8 billion directly to the Pakistani army for "security." So far, the Obama administration has given much less and has committed more of the money to development -- the 2009 Kerry-Lugar bill, for example, dedicated $7.5 billion to development over five years.

Washington has rarely used its influence in Islamabad to promote democracy. President Dwight Eisenhower was fond of Ayub Khan and had no problem with his 1958 coup. Reagan had a good relationship with Zia and looked the other way when he tried to acquire nuclear material from China in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The relationship did not deteriorate even as Zia embarked on a course of Islamization throughout Pakistan. President George W. Bush considered Musharraf to be one of his best allies, despite the fact that he was notoriously playing a double game: supporting Islamist insurgents in his own country while pledging to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan.


Pakistan's colonial legacy, weak political parties, social conservatism, and outside influences have given its army an increasingly strong influence over the state. Even when civilians are in charge -- historically every ten years or so (1947-58, 1970-77, 1988-99, and since 2008) -- many responsibilities that are supposedly in the government's portfolio actually belong to the army: Afghanistan policy, the Kashmir strategy, and the nuclear program have been the purview of the generals for decades. And now the generals have become a force to be reckoned with in economic policy as well, because of their huge land holdings and vast military foundations and enterprises. At the same time, the popularity of Pakistan's civilian government and its leader, President Asif Ali Zardari -- in power since Musharraf was voted out in 2008 -- has fallen to dangerously low levels because of incompetence and corruption. According to the report by the State of Democracy in South Asia project, cited by Oldenburg, Pakistanis are now so disillusioned with democratic politics that they are much less averse to military rule than are Indians. This means, as Oldenburg suggests, that Pakistan will probably continue to be neither a democracy nor a dictatorship, but something in between.

To overcome this situation, the relationship between India and Pakistan -- not just the comparison between them -- must be addressed. India, a growing economic power, resents being grouped with a quasi-failed state. Indian leaders were quite happy, for example, when U.S. President Barack Obama visited India but not Pakistan during his last Asian tour. But decoupling is not only bad for U.S.-Pakistani relations -- Pakistan longs to be recognized as on par with India and could be easier to work with if it is, even if only symbolically -- it is not really in India's interest, either. China, India's real rival, could take advantage of a Pakistan alienated from the West. And if Pakistan falls apart, democracy in India might be affected as well. Already, routinized terrorist violence has taken its toll on Indian civil liberties. And communal harmony in India, which has always been tenuous, has become increasingly strained thanks to terrorist attacks and the BJP's Hindu nationalist policies. The best way forward will be for both countries, with the support of the international community, to launch a new round of dialogue. Without such attention to Indian-Pakistani relations, India's democracy will not prosper and Pakistan's generals will never unclench their fists.


CHRISTOPHE JAFFRELOT is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for International Studies and Research at Sciences Po, in Paris.


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