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Divergent Destinies of Two Nations: Analyzing Democracy in India and Pakistan

Guest Opinion



The conference in New Delhi where Lord Mountbatten (centre) disclosed Britain’s partition plan for India to Nehru and Jinnah.

On the intervening midnight of August 14 and August 15,1947, the newly created nations of Pakistan and India became independent of almost 200 years of colonial rule. Both nations at their onset were ravaged by a violent and genocidal partition, and were busy dealing with the resultant refugee crises. Both countries faced the twin challenges of eradicating poverty and at the same time developing their respective societies. However, both countries took divergent paths in terms of their democratic trajectories.


The constitution-making process in Pakistan was continuously delayed while there was a bureaucratic domination there from 1953 to 1954. Pakistan's tryst with democracy bolstered in 1958 with a military coup. On the other hand, India was quick in ratifying the world's largest constitution. It also conducted elections in 1952 based on Universal Adult Franchise and had an elected Chief Executive for making Indian administrative organizations functional.


Defining Democracy

Despite huge diversity and mass poverty, India’s ability to remain its democratic character throughout these years is commendable. Pakistan, on the other hand, has not been successful in its democratic experiment and has struggled to maintain democracy throughout these years. India and Pakistan achieved independence together, but while one has been a successful procedural democracy, the other has relatively struggled to maintain its democratic character. A thorough investigation can help us decode this mystery further. We must take into account that in this analysis ‘Democracy’ has been defined in a strictly procedural sense. As Joseph Schumpeter remarked:

“That institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote (is democracy)."

Going by this procedural sense India has been a democracy throughout and Pakistan has been an unstable democratic regime since its inception.


Analyzing the Regime Trajectories

The major structural features in India and Pakistan are largely similar, but a marked difference is seen in the regime trajectories of both nations. The difference manifests itself in two most important indicators: one, about the kind of social classes that were leading their social movements; and two, the strength of the respective dominant parties upon independence.


A colonially entrenched, landed aristocracy dominated Pakistan’s nationalist movement. It was highly unlikely that this privileged class would try to establish a system of government that would employ redistribution of material resources and political capital to other social groups, and would tolerate the erosion of its privileges for the benefit of the masses.

On the other hand, the Indian Nationalist Movement was dominated by the educated, urban middle-classes, who demanded political power and upward mobility in social hierarchy and employment. They advocated a democratic government based on the principle of Universal Adult Franchise.


In order to analyze the strength of dominant party in Pakistan at independence, and its role in formation of differential regime trajectories, we have to base our discussion on three factors:


1. Programmatic Ideology

Two ideologies could have dominated the Nationalist Movement: either ‘programmatic’ or ‘vague’. There was a constant absence of programmatic vision in Pakistani nationalism; it was mainly defined only in opposition to Congress rule and only concentrated on opposing the Congress. Thus, there were no clear principles or practices in which Pakistan's leading political party could base itself in the post-independence period. It was unable to reconcile policy conflicts that took place in post-1947 Pakistan.


On the other hand, Indian nationalism was not limited by its anti-colonial struggle; it was based on a strong foundation of economic and social principles not only in theory but also in practice. This practice of programmatic nationalism helped India to reconcile its political conflicts in the post-independence era.


2. Coherent Distributive Alliances

The distributive alliances could be coherent and functional only if their distributive interests were relatively aligned. Pakistan's national movement was based on the support of landed aristocracy and peasantry. Since their interests were diagrammatically opposed, the distributive alliances collapsed in the face of post-independence power-sharing arrangements.


On the other hand, the Indian nationalist movement was based on the support of the urban and rural middle-classes. Their common interest lay in the redistribution of resources to the marginalized sections. They encouraged downward distribution of power to subordinate socio-economic groups. The presence of coherent distributive interests led to a stable democratic regime.

3. Robust Intra-Party Organization

The robustness of intraparty organization in a country is determined by the state of its development. While Pakistan’s political party was largely based on the charisma of its leaders and was minimally developed, the Indian National Congress was already well placed and had a well-developed centralized party organization. The INC was easily able to broker compromises for the development of unified political programs.


The Tryst with Democracy

There is also a common misconception that India and Pakistan inherited the same colonial legacy and were treated alike by the British Raj before independence. This misconception ignores the reality that India had some experience with democracy before because the British started devolving power in the early twentieth century to some local governments in regions that became part of the Indian nation on independence.


On the other hand, the two major zones that made- up Pakistan, Punjab and Northwest Frontier Province, were highly militarized and almost half of the British army came from these two regions. Thus, the democratic devolution of power was never exercised in these regions by the colonial government as it could be a threat to British supremacy. This also laid the ground for military and bureaucratic elements in Pakistan. Also, Pakistani leadership’s inability to recognize the majority group politics in Bangladesh led to the secession of East Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh in 1971. Lack of ability to manage diversity in Pakistan’s leadership and the country’s inability to accommodate demands of predominantly Bengali people of East Pakistan was responsible for its fragmentation.


There have been constant interruptions in the proper functioning of democracy in Pakistan. The Pakistani constitution came into force on 23rd March, 1956 (Republic Day of Pakistan). It was prepared by Pakistan’s constituent assembly and was enforced under Pakistan’s Prime Minister Chaudhry Muhammad Ali. However, within two years General Ayub Khan took power into his own hands in the military coup of 1958. He was in power till 1969, when General Yahya Khan took over. Finally, in 1971 , Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became the president and made efforts to re-established democracy in Pakistan.


In India, Indira Gandhi imposed an emergency in 1975 which was a massive setback for Indian democracy. The emergency was recalled in 1977 and Indira Gandhi called for fresh elections. The emergency was the darkest period of Indian democracy. In Pakistan at the same time in 1977, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto guided the establishment of a new constitution with more powers to the provinces. Then in 1977, Indira Gandhi called for free and fair fresh elections to the parliament and in the same year, Pakistan fell under the dictatorship of General Zia- ul-Haq. General Pervez Musharraf imposed an emergency in 1999 in Pakistan and arrested major politicians. His dictatorship lasted till 2008. In 2008 democracy was restored in Pakistan and then from 2008 to 2013, for the first time in the history of Pakistan, a democratically elected civilian government completed its five-year term without interruption.


The Evaluation of Success and Failure

The weakness of Pakistan’s democracy can also be attributed to other factors. First, the constituent assembly of Pakistan delayed its constitution-making process. Pakistan’s constituent assembly was unrepresentative of large sections of society, showcasing a lack of democratic process. Second, the weakening of the Muslim League as a party after the death of Muhammad Ali Jinnah also holds significance. Third, military intervention in Pakistan's politics further weakened the political system. Fourth, the Pakistani democratic system in many ways encourages dynastic politics which is m