India and Pakistan: Different fruits, common roots


India-and-PakistanMaking sense of the political trajectory of the South Asian twins

By Khan Yasir

India and Pakistan – two multi-religious and multi-lingual countries, sharing a geographical and historical space, with indistinguishable level of extreme poverty and extreme inequality at the hour of independence – have clearly contrasting political regime histories. Throughout the six decades of independence India has remained mainly a democracy, while in Pakistan democracy has been fleetingly instated only as a facade for military-bureaucratic dominance. Why India and Pakistan have grown different fruits (in terms of political systems) despite having common roots (in terms of history and colonial legacy)? In India, Pakistan, and Democracy: Solving the puzzle of divergent paths, Philip Oldenburg – as a quasi-citizen of both countries (p.13) – sets out to get to the bottom of this puzzle.

The book is divided into two parts and eleven chapters, and author has tried to maintain the narrative chronological. Eight tables and four figures are employed to elucidate different arguments through statistics, provided by Freedom House Assessment and State of Democracy in South Asia: A Report. Index and bibliography is also comprehensive. This study is derivative where author has generally relied on secondary sources.

In the Introduction the author has problematized the puzzle, highlighting why it is intriguing and why earlier efforts to resolve it are inadequate. Experts have believed that given desperate poverty, grossly in egalitarian practices and prodigiously multi-lingual (if not multi-national) polity, seeds of democracy would not germinate in either country. Though Pakistan lived up to scholarly expectations, India defied their speculations. The ‘deviant case’ of India is summarized by Michelutti, “‘Indian Democracy’ carries on working despite the poverty, illiteracy, corruption, religious nationalism, casteism, political violence, and disregard of law and order.” (p.2) Yogendra Yadav’s explanation that democracy in India has been localized, routinized and creolized has also been referred to. Belittling significance of Indian deviance, some argue that India is not “really” a democracy, or not really a “substantive” democracy. “Others are still waiting for the anomaly to be resolved by India falling apart, or succumbing to a (fascist) Hindu nationalism or a (left) revolutionary takeover” (Ibid). Oldenburg however does not cite any work with these farfetched claims.

For the sake of convenience democracy is defined as “free and fair elections” and that “no other power (such as the military) can veto decisions made by elected rulers…” (p.4).

To explain these “different trajectories” Oldenburg has explored arguments that rest on social-cultural factors, particularly religion; socio-economic factors, especially gross social and economic inequalities, and local-arena structures of power; and international milieu. However the efforts to ‘solve’ the puzzle fall short of expectations when (instead of finding any clear-cut causal explanation) in the end, he declares to be most convinced of a “path-dependence explanation” i.e. India is a democracy now because it was one last year and one year before and the decade before that. And with the exception of the Emergency, it has been a democracy since independence and each year of democratic experience has enhanced the chances of it continuing as a democracy (p.8).

In his narrative Oldenburg emphasizes the importance of the year 1977. Introduction of this 1977-factor, crucial choices made by both countries in this crucial period that resulted in entrenchment of democracy in India and military-rule in Pakistan and an assessment of the other choices that would have made opposite true, has made this study not only interesting but spellbinding. 1977 is the watershed which divides the book in two parts: The first thirty years of independence and From 1977 to the Present.

India and Pakistan both at the hour of Independence in 1947 commonly inherited British Raj institutions in terms of military, civil bureaucracy and the structure of political system as per 1935 Government of India Act. But this inheritance was much more complex than it seems at the first glance and had its impact on the divergent political trajectories. Pakistan inherited a comparatively strong and rooted state apparatus in terms of military and bureaucracy and a comparatively weak and less grounded political establishment. It is also noteworthy that senior civil servants like Chaudhri Mohammed Ali worked in partnership with political leadership in 1940s to materialize Pakistan. Indian bureaucracy was less politically motivated, almost totally excluded from Indian freedom struggle, and was arguably loyal to British till Second World War.

The difference between national movements of the respective countries is also significant for their respective political futures. India’s nationalist movement was older with at least three generations of leadership. It reached the masses much earlier. It was by and large democratically directed, believed in non-violence and respect for the rule of law. “The Pakistan movement was a generation younger than the Congress; became a mass movement twenty-five years after the Congress did; was directed in a less democratic fashion; and at least at a critical point in 1946 resorted to mob violence to make its political point.” (p.21)

In Muslim League no one from the second generation challenged the undisputed authority of Jinnah. Congress on the contrary had many leaders with adequate mass base and popular support and it was a kind of “rainbow coalition”. Another fateful paradox for the League was the fact that all its initial support came from provinces where Muslims were minority which later became parts of India. And so, Muslim League leaders, who migrated to Pakistan, had no mass base in the newly carved out country.

Differences in the conception of nationalisms were also acute. Indian nationalism in absence of any common religious, linguistic, ethnic, territorial, or historical identity was something of an economic nationalism. Indians were Indians because they were collectively exploited by colonial rule. Muslim League on the other hand, besides its commitment for independence, was also committed to the safeguarding of Muslims as a community.

But more than these given structures and environment, this era offered an arena of important choices for the rulers of both countries to shape their political future. Pakistan dealt diabolically with the multiple-nationalisms compared to India’s treatment of princely states. It struggled to define the role of Islam in the new regime, imposed Urdu as the only national language. Steps such as dismissal of government of NWFP a week after independence, rigging of provincial elections in the early 1950s, army’s negotiations with US for military arrangements indicate that Pakistan was very much a ‘bureaucratic polity’ from the beginning. The balance of power thus, on the eve of independence, favored Indian politicians and Pakistani bureaucrats. (p.45)

As far as political leadership is concerned a comparison of Jinnah and Nehru is pertinent. Jinnah was a professed democrat and Nehru had his share of autocratic moments. But Nehru due to political compulsions had to be inclusive in his approach, contrary to Jinnah whom political circumstances only taught to be stern and unyielding. Jinnah had reasons to believe that Mountbatten supported India and hence he had to concentrate executive, legislative and political positions all in his own hands. Irrespective of circumstances; “Jinnah’s unintentional contribution to the future of Pakistan was a demotion of political leadership in favor of the bureaucracy.”

(Alavi quoted on p.55) Jinnah mutilated democracy in the infant state of Pakistan for e.g. by declaring Urdu as the sole state language. Citing external and internal emergencies he dissuaded opposition and emphasized the need of single party (i.e. Muslim League) and discouraged mushroom-like emergence of political parties. There was no internal democracy within Muslim League. After all Jinnah died in 1948 before exerting any conclusive impact on the conventions of parliament.

Nehru on the other hand had several advantages like dominance of Congress under his leadership in national and state level elections. Democratic conventions were an end in itself for Nehru. It seems fairly deliberate that Nehru indulged in energetic campaigning for general elections despite the fact that he would have won without it; his regard for parliamentary conventions, consultations with cabinet and committees for every significant issue, respect for opposition, dealing with press criticisms etc., are testimony to this. Nehru relentlessly inculcated democracy in India as a routine. Under his premiership India became addicted to democracy (p.62).

Absence of any strong leader after Jinnah also contributed for military’s stepping in. Tragically no party or politician resisted Ayub in 1951 when he ‘saved’ the nation. In India negative contribution of military i.e. not seeking power or influence besides positive contributions i.e. professionalism is explained in terms of some crucial decisions for e.g. abolishing the office of commander-in-chief, the fact that no head of any armed forces has ever held a formal position in the cabinet as Ayub did in Pakistan. British traditions of firm retirement age, short and fixed terms in particular position, rotation functionally and geographically etc. were rigorously maintained. Retired military men rarely entered politics. Whether deliberately or not these practices made coups impractical. Oldenburg also emphasize the fact that military steps in to fill a political vacuum (p.49), and if there was none in India, there was no need of army stepping out of barracks.

Role of faith in India, Pakistan

Question of religion in India was solved the first day and Nehru was himself a staunch believer in exclusion of religion from public life. Pakistan’s secession from India on Islam-in-danger rhetoric never shook the Congress’ commitment for a secular state. Hindutva only became a political force in 1980s. Indian secularism may have faced several challenges but those challenges never threatened its foundations. Contrary to this, question of Islam’s place in Pakistan was never decided, it was a rallying cry for every party and every leader but no one was clear about real place for Islam except Islamists like Maulana Maududi who never enjoyed the fruits of power.

How to represent people in federal arrangement was a problem in Pakistan. Urdu – mother tongue of 4% population was imposed as national language when 55% people had Bangla as their mother tongue. The fact that East Pakistan was only a province compared to West Pakistan which has four, gave some sort of veto to West Pakistan to silence the majority of the eastern wing. East Bengal remained a raw material providing quasi-colony to West Pakistan. Underrepresentation of Bengalis in the national life of Pakistan led to separation of Bangladesh in 1971. In India reorganization of states on linguistic lines solved much of the state-center dispute except in a few problematic areas like Kashmir and North East.

At the time of independence provinces that were to become Pakistan were less experienced in terms of elections except the province of East Bengal. Bureaucratic and military establishment was wary of elections because for them, it meant erosion of power. Hence half-hearted elections in Pakistan were to maintain and legitimize the status quo and were characterized by blatant fraud, rigging, overzealous local officials, low turnout, and referendums on the basis of poorly framed questions. Oldenburg contends Meghnad Desai’s argument that Indian constitutional assembly’s decision of universal adult franchise was unique and revolutionary step as same was true for Pakistan and many other countries. What made the difference was presence of a genuinely autonomous election commission, diligence in registration of voters and parties, issuing and enforcing rules of campaign conduct and organizing Election Day efforts. With the exception of Kashmir, elections in India were free and fair without blatant distortions and rigging.

Comparing the situations of ‘freedom of association’, ‘press freedom’ and ‘rule of law’ in India and Pakistan, Oldenburg has reached the conclusion that “while somewhat restricted” these institutions are very much existent in both countries “though significantly less robustly in Pakistan.” (p.83) Governments in both countries have tried to ‘control’ (not suppress) the media and civil society but in both countries fairly critical media and NGOs are found in abundance. Role of judiciary has been mixed with occasional path breaking judgments in both countries. A common Indian or Pakistani however is wary of police and courts.

There is no unitary class structure or even class consciousness in both countries. This makes redundant the arguments that either country is governed by “a” class. According to Oldenburg this is not true even at the provincial or district level. He refutes the claims of scholars who suggest that “…political systems of both India and Pakistan are simply the window-dressing for a hidden system of social or economic dominance.” (p.104) In the process he seems to reject Pranab Bardhan’s thesis of “three proprietary classes”, Achin Vanaik’s “the ruling class block” and Hamza Alavi’s “Metropolitan bourgeoisie exercising its dominion through indigenous social classes” as oversimplifications. In local arenas there are dominant groups and castes that make a mockery of rule of law and democratic institutions of India but Oldenburg found situations in which these powerful propertied interests were successfully challenged through democratic system.

Decisive trends

The trends set in these thirty years were decisive for both countries. Pakistan for much of this period struggled to generate a workable constitution, came under explicit military rule for more than thirteen years and also lost its eastern wing as Bangladesh. India on the other hand, successfully came up and implemented the constitution and held free and fair elections as early as 1951. In 1967 however, many states voted out Congress and at the end of this period India had its brush with quasi-authoritarian rule in Emergency from June 1975. Paths of India and Pakistan were never this close to each other – almost overlapping. From this converging-point Pakistan would have moved towards democracy under the inspiring leadership of immensely popular Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto; while India, with an already decaying Congress, would have relapsed into authoritarian rule with Sanjay Gandhi in starring role.

In chapter, ‘1977 as a turning point?’ Oldenburg traces some of the prehistory of 1977 and what were the immediate choices that led the India and Pakistan to 1977. 1971 elections in Pakistan, war with India, partition of Bangladesh, issues on which Awami League and Pakistan People’s Party fought, nearness to Middle East, Islam factor, Bhutto’s democratic credentials, nature of 1973 constitution, Bhutto’s dismissal of senior army officers and approval for nuclear weapons. Indian victory in 1971 war, Energy independence, Mrs. Gandhi’s vision for a ‘Hard State’ and ‘committed bureaucracy’, her pressurization of judiciary, censoring press, locking up opposition, abridging powers of assembly, a belief that she would win elections, opposition alliance etc. But after March 1977 elections India made a cathartic rededication to democracy never to return to anything remote like Emergency and Pakistan’s political future was again slaughtered by yet another military General playing ‘savior’.

Religion often comes under scanner for its role in making a civilization more or less receptive towards democracy. Oldenburg disagrees with the notion that Islam played any significant role in determining political choices in Pakistan. Various ‘Islamic’ laws, ‘Islamic’ reforms and even Ziya’s Nizam-e-Mustafa had not changed the core structure of political, social, economic institutions of Pakistan (p.147) On the contrary, religious question is more important in India than is paid attention, due to secular character of the state. Political parties have played communal cards for electoral gains since independence and continue to do so. Promotion of Sant Bhindranwale, Shah Bano affair, reopening shrine of Rama inside Babri Masjid etc could be cited as crude examples. Political costs of this varied from communal riots to assassination of the prime minister herself. Though religion is politicized, religious leaders have minor impact on politics. In short, religion, in both countries, has had no obvious role in strengthening politicians, or weakening the state apparatus’ claims to a right to rule (p.161).

Another explanation for these divergent paths could be that of external influence. During early years of independence when cold war was shrouding the international ambience, India chose to be non-aligned while Pakistan joined the US block. Akbar S Zaidi regards Pakistan as “client state of US” except possibly in the period of ZA Bhutto. America continued military and economic aid to military governments that inoculated the military state against a possible economic failure especially during Ayub and Musharraf regime. India on the other hand was dependent on Soviet Union for weaponry, now it is US, Britain and Israel.

Sovereignty is allegedly compromised in India, as opposition asserts, on the issues of globalization and FDI etc. Hindutva forces are influenced by fascism of Italy, Nazism of Germany and Zionism of Israel. But it is farfetched to argue that either handful of officers going to Soviet union, United States, Britain or Israel have had a considerable influence on Indian policies, or Indian interests have been blindly compromised, or sovereignty has been mortgaged while liberalizing the economy.

The tragedy of Pakistan was that even democratic leaders have acted autocratically for e.g. Nawaz Sharif tried to concentrate all powers in his hands by curtailing president’s authority, pressurizing Supreme Court, dismissing chief of army staff General Jahangir Karamat and then trying to depose Pervez Musharraf which finally led to his departure. Oldenburg emphasis that it is hard to break the hold of military in Pakistan as they had set up a recruitment-to-grave social security system for both officers and men. Innumerable companies and industries are controlled by Pakistan army’s retired men.

In India on the other hand elections have remained free and fair, election commission strengthened, commitment to freedom of speech, press and association have improved, civil society and NGOs are mushrooming.

Is there any possibility of path convergence today after thirty years of 1977? Oldenburg answers in No despite acknowledging reasonably fair elections of 2008 in Pakistan and formation of civilian government thereafter. He argues that military still remains a power and is gradually digging itself for more control. He quotes several instances where important decisions of the recent PPP government were ‘vetoed’ by army.

For India Oldenburg naively argues that 2002 Gujarat pogrom was death rattle for Hindutva forces. Some of the serious yet ‘manageable’ crises that he notes are economic inequalities, resistance from Kashmir, North East, and tribal revolutionaries, paralysis in the party system and weakness in the rule of law (p.217-8). In short, India remains a firmly workable democracy in the end. The quintessential argument of the book in one sentence is that, “…Indian citizen attitudes favor democracy more than Pakistan’s…” (p.123).

The narrative has been made interesting by thought provoking ‘ifs’ like: “Had Nehru died and Patel lived, what would India’s regime trajectory have been? Had Liaquat been given the chance to govern as long as Nehru what would Pakistan’s trajectory have been?” (p.15) And what would have happened “…if Mrs Gandhi had not called the election of 1977, or had handed real power to her son Sanjay, and had he not died in 1980” (p.225).

This smoothly written and flowing account of historical narrative is indeed cogent and coherent but there are also a few limitations.

This study is based on the assumption that democracy is something good, desirable and an end in itself. This assumption, especially the desirability factor, is democratically challenged by statistics which substantiates that a major chunk of respondents in Pakistan are not in favor of democracy. (p.5) Also, by defining Democracy only as ‘free and fair elections’ the comparative study from the very beginning tilted in its favor towards India. While Oldenburg seems to justify Indian deviance from democratic paths in terms of ‘realization’, he has not considered such possibilities of ‘vernacularization’ of democracy, with flavor of Islam and ingredients from expert-rule, in Pakistan. He has mentioned but not taken to the logical conclusion that such ‘creolization’ of democracy in India may tend to justify discriminations against minority and lowers castes. (p.188) Even during historical analysis this bias is explicit. To say that Indian national movement never relied on violence (p.21) is a very oversimplified understanding of freedom movement that sidelines the contributions of revolutionaries and subalterns for e.g. quit India movement. In the same vein he accuses Pakistani movement of mob violence which again is not ‘true’ if only ‘official’ Muslim League’s stance is taken into account.

There are places where Oldenburg seems almost judgmental and in a hurry to reach conclusions. Reader of the book cannot help minding this imposition for e.g. while discussing external influence on India he began with this sentence, “India is far more an autonomous country than Pakistan when it comes to external influence on its governance.” (p.170) or “We do not have this data, but it is certainly true that, if we did have a reliable “rentier state” index, Pakistan would have a higher number – probably much higher number – than India.” (p.166)

Oldenburg seems to be polemical on behalf of India when he deals with Heller’s criticism who regarded corruption, criminalization of politics and marginalization of popular classes as the crisis of Indian democracy. Although he finds serious problems with women and Muslim representation in government, bureaucracy, and administration and recognizes that Muslim and other minorities tend to be excluded from power positions unless they are a substantial proportion of the population at a given place (p.116). And also recognizes that caste inequality, and the marginalization of the “lower orders” is probably greater in India than Pakistan (p.123). Yet for him these problems are not threats to democracy, not even incompleteness of democracy but merely ‘manageable’ issues.

Some seemingly factual errors have also crept in for e.g. while arguing that Congress had three generations of leadership Oldenburg counted Abul Kalam Azad among second generation leaders while Jawaharlal Nehru was included in third (p.21) despite the fact that both were born in November 1888.

Quoting Pakistani scholars Oldenburg stresses that after independence Pakistani bureaucracy was captured by the members of elite classes who had fled from India and it was obviously difficult for them to rule democratically so they chose to rule as civil servants (p.20). However, Oldenburg does not explain how civil servants in any case – indigenous or refugee – could rule democratically.

The account, as far as it has been a historical investigation, was coherent and enlightening. But when Oldenburg applies this paths-have-become-ruts thesis to predict the future trajectories, he loses his cogency. The critique of induction by David Hume can surely apply to Oldenburg’s assertions like, “there will be no victory in battle for Islamic groups, no victory in a democratic election, and no Islamic revolution, either by religious leaders backed by a mass movement or from within the state by a coup of Islamist army officers” (p.208). One cannot reject any of these possibilities after witnessing popular revolutions in Middle East.

It is wise on Oldenburg’s part to argue that degree of divergence should not be overstated because besides polity there are many paradoxes in both countries that could not be explained strictly through path-dependence thesis. The entrenchment of the military in Pakistan has been accompanied by an increase in openness of its society. In India strengthening of democratic forces has also witnessed ascendance of exclusionary Hindutva forces and violent revolutionary forces. (p.175) Still after this recognition, he inexplicably argues that paths-may-have-become-ruts and small moves towards democracy and freedoms in Pakistan are only as much as are allowed by the military. Oldenburg stresses this point and argues that military dictators have had themselves ‘elected’ at will, amended constitutions as pleased, and after picking up ‘low-hanging fruits’ of governance have transferred the reigns into civil hands and then sacked it when desired. (p.176-7) In short if Oldenburg is to be believed Pakistan’s polity could never jettison its military baggage and India, whatever may fall, would never shun its democracy. This seems rather deterministic view of future which is also simplistic for India and pessimistic for Pakistan, and is surely undue stretching of path-dependence thesis.

Despite some of the shortcomings the book is well-researched, well-argued and offers a good analysis. Oldenburg does rely completely on secondary sources for building his argument and the study is certainly not based on any primary research or extensive fieldwork, yet it is an apt summary and worthy commentary on the comparative literature available on India and Pakistan. The book will surely benefit students of history and political science in general, and is of tremendous value for students and scholars of comparative politics.–

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

Philip Oldenburg


  • Khan Yasir is a research scholar at the University of Delhi and can be contacted at [email protected]



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