State of Democracy in India and Pakistan
The Nation
April 9, 1997
Before the subcontinent was partitioned, the Indian National Congress opposed the creation of Pakistan. After its creation, India's founding leader and first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru raised doubts about the country's political survival. In subsequent decades, the dismemberment of East Pakistan, over a decade-long military rule of Ziaul Haq and the ethnic strife in Karachi became a reference point for much of the Indian scholarship on Pakistan, grouned in the same thesis of its eventual collapse. The 1990s came with a new description for the country: that of being a failed state.

Fortunately, at present, nearly 50 years after its creation and despite facing several shocks of military rule and secessionist movements, Pakistan seems politically stable and economically developing. Its politics is being played by two main political actors: the Pakistan Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif and the PPP led by Benazir Bhutto. Other political actors just have a provincial base. The results of the last two general elections supplement the approach that the religious and sectarian forces in the country have also faded out. Once supreme, almost all the Maulanas have virtually been wiped out of the mainstream politics.

Had the Jama’at-e-Islami, the country's largest political Islamist party, contested the February 3 election, it might not have performed better than 1993 election. The voters generally do not seem to vote for the religious forces. Thus, the role of the so-called third forces in national politics—who, along with undemocratic elements, try to make matters worse for the key political players —seems to be over.

Looking at the Indian national political scenario, leaving aside Janata Dal and other parties of the United Front, one finds the Congress and BJP as the two main election contestants. One is secular while the other a communalist. Thus, if in Pakistan’s case, purely political parties are up against each other; in India, the political battle is between a political party and a communalist party. The latter does not have a countrywide reach.

In Pakistan, however, despite the fact that the PPP was routed out in the last election, nobody can dispute the fact that it does not have a party structure that reaches the grass-root level all over the country. Even if India’s BJP, led by chauvinistic Hindus, does not have a country-wide reach, it does have a significant appeal among high-class Hindus—since nobody can ignore the fact that, in the last election, it was the largest parliamentary winner. And, in the snap polls as well, given Congress’s weakening position and the failure of the rest of the parties to form a coherent alliance, the BJP may again emerge as a party having the largest number of seats in Lok Sabha.

The most positive political trend recently observed in Pakistan is that almost all of its formerly disenchanted regional, nationalist or ethnic forces have now become part of the mainstream politics. Even though, by now, all of MQM’s grievances have not been redressed, this Muhajir organization seems to be all set to play a mainstream political role. For its part, the rise of Muhajirs in Sindh nearly two decades ago helped subdue Sindhi nationalist feelings. Sindhi nationalist leaders like Rasul Bakhsh Palejo, Qadir Magsi and several others of Jeeyae Sindh fame are either nowhere in the scene or have been the allies of the major parties for years.

For a Sindhi nationalist voter, the best attraction is the PPP, one of the two mainstream political parties. The fact is that Pakistan, being a small state, with a few ethnically diverse communities of people, is politically manageable. The communal and ethnic elements causing this divisiveness in the past have faded out by now. The Pushtuns, for instance, have integrated into Punjabi culture. So have the Muhajirs living in the Punjab. With the passage of time, if the parliamentary system of government continues flourishing as such, the Sindhis and Muhajirs might as well shed their narrow-minded ethnic ambitions.

India, on the other hand, is such a huge country, with numerous ethnically diverse and socially discriminated communities of people, that its governance is increasingly becoming an unmanageable affair. Take the case of Kashmir!Since the start of uprising in the disputed region, India has tried every repressive means possible, from the outright use of military force to the launching of counter-insurgency operations, the Kashmiris’ fight for their right to self-determination continues. Even several Indian bids to lure the leaders of Kashmir freedom fighters, including the ones made by their handpicked leader Farooq Abdullah, have failed.

No doubt the Indians have had a parliamentary system of government since independence. No doubt one of the first moves made by their leaders was to rid the country of the bane of feudalism by undertaking land reforms in the 1950s. No doubt all along their history the Indians have had a working constitutional document ensuring the survival of its parliamentary order. And, no doubt India succeeded in building strong public rights institutions such as the Election Commission, whose former chief T N Seshan earned world-wide fame by acting independent of any political pressure—most importantly, that from the ruling party.

However, the Indian claim to have achieved all this after consistent effort of five decades is now endangered by the ongoing political squabbling and the growing challenge being posed to the Indian federation by forces who cater for their peculiar regional, nationalistic, ideological and class interests.

The trouble with Pakistanis in most of their history has been the non-availability of any opportunity to prove their zest for democracy. They got this opportunity once in the 1970s but were in the end disappointed by their own populist leader. The people themselves have never failed Pakistan. In the post-Zia period as well, they stood for democracy. That democracy itself became a victim of the intrigues of undemocratic forces—which would divide the pliable political elements and thus control the reins of power—was not the people’s fault.

On the economic front, some of the initiatives prime minister Nawaz Sharif has taken are worth mentioning. First, during the periods of Benazir and caretakers, the IMF had virtually started dictating the country. In September 1996, the agreement Benazir government had negotiated and signed with the IMF was under the so-called Standby Agreement Package, in which the borrower has to pay back the borrowed amount with an interest of six per cent. The present regime, however, has negotiated a new arrangement with the IMF. Now the country will be borrowing from the IMF under a more flexible package called the Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility, and the interest it has to pay on the borrowed money will be just half a per cent.

In addition, the government has announced a wide-ranging agricultural relief package for the farmers by significantly raising the support prices of the basic crops they produce—wheat, rice and oil seeds —and abolishing the general sales tax on certified cotton seeds. On the social front as well, within weeks after coming to power, the Parliament has declared capital punishment for gang rape. In the weeks ahead, the new leadership has pledged to do away with the Qisas and Daiyat Ordinances, for their socially unjust legal dimensions.

The speed with which such developments—characteristic of a participatory system—are taking place, is the most important factor when the talk is about comparing one country’s political situation with that of another. The leadership’s foremost task is to prepare and implement such public plans as they reflect the aspirations of the people. Once that starts happening, the people never fail their leaders.

The good news is that since February 3, and, particularly, following the removal of the Eighth Amendment, the politically conscious Pakistanis by and large are very much optimistic about their bright future as a nation—something altogether lacking in today’s India, where every passing day of the current political quagmire adds to the state of public discontentment with the very institutions of parliamentary democracy.