India and Pakistan: what’s the difference?

If India and Pakistan were cut from the same geographic and ethnic cloth, with the same parliamentary-style system, why is India held to be a vibrant democracy today and Pakistan a political basket case?

I was having dinner with a friend of mine, and he asked me what were the key differences between Indians and Pakistanis.  I am a Punjabi Sikh born and raised in the US, and all of my family is originally from what is now current day Pakistan, but moved to what is current-day India as a consequence of Partition (the splitting of India by the British at the time of Independence).  Thus, my friend assumed that I should be knowledgeable about both sides.  We talked for a while about the history of the region and the cultural differences of the two countries.  My friend then asked a simple question: If India and Pakistan were cut from the same geographic and ethnic cloth, and since both countries started off at the same time with the same parliamentary-style system, why is India a vibrant democracy today and Pakistan a political basket case? 

At the time, I did not have a good answer. For many weeks, the question bothered me.  Both countries started off at the exact same time, August 14-15, 1947.  Both countries inherited a British civil service architecture, an intact local government system, and an intact British railroad system for communication and transportation infra-structure.  Both countries had a strong political class borne out of the struggle for independence from Great Britain, and both countries had identified a charismatic leader with strong credentials and the public support of their respective constituencies (Jawaharlal Nehru and Ali Jinnah). 

The more I thought about it, the more commonalities I came up with.  Both countries were a combination of princely states and semi-autonomous regions with a multitude of spoken languages. Pakistan was made up of Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan, Bangladesh, and the Northwest Frontier Provinces. India was made up of over fifteen disparate regions.  Both countries had poor literacy rates (@15%) and a large majority religion: Islam and Hinduism, respectively.  Neither region was rich in any natural resource and neither country had any history of any type of democratic process.  Both countries were rural and primarily agrarian-based.  Neither country inherited a monarchy or ruling family.  Neither country is landlocked, and both share a wide geographic range (from fertile plains, deserts, mountains).  Both countries generated their own constitutions and opted for a British style parliamentary system.

Now, sixty years later, India seems to me to be a robust democracy, with a vibrant economy. It feeds its own people.  Pakistan is on the verge of being a failed state, the economy is in shambles, and the country requires foreign aid to survive. 

During the run-up to the Iraq war, there was a great deal of discussion in the States of what is necessary for a democracy to take hold. Talking heads exploded onto the cable news scene, and academics, political wonks, and governmental experts alike weighed in on the issue.  When the rhetoric and political jockeying was set aside, some interesting questions were in fact being asked.  What are the necessary ingredients for a democracy to succeed?

Some of the components that were cited as prerequisites were: the rule of law, a high literacy rate, a political class, an independent judiciary, and a free press. India and Pakistan offer a valuable lesson on this important question.  While the British were focused on their own interests, they inadvertently set off a controlled experiment in democracy. Interestingly, many of the “necessary” ingredients were not present in either India or Pakistan at the time of Independence.  Thus, returning us to the original question of how did India survive and Pakistan fall into the cycle of dictatorship-ineffective government-dictatorship.

Canvassing opinion          

I set out to answer this question, and I started by asking all my friends who were of Indian and Pakistani descent.  I found most of their answers to be very South Asia-centric, and not surprisingly many Indians blamed the Pakistanis for their own woes, and the Pakistanis blamed India.  I widened my query to knowledgeable people in the field: NGO types and foreign policy professionals.  What follows is a summary of the responses to this simple question and what I began to conclude from this. I hope this may be instructive. Because if we can come to understand why the one country succeeded and the other failed, we might be better able to guide future nation-states toward success.

The most common answer that I received was Islam: “Islam is inherently anti-democratic.”  Muslims believe in the edicts from the Koran and would prefer to be ruled by Sharia law. The Koran does not make any accommodation for democracy and therefore democracy cannot prosper amongst a people whose gospel does not support democracy.  Further, Muslims have a strong sense of rule of law and justice, but because Sharia law supports the second class status of women, an impossibility in a modern, pluralistic economy democracy cannot take hold. 

At first blush, this argument appears attractive, but there are two obvious counter-examples in the modern world: Turkey and Indonesia.  Both countries are democratic, super-majority Muslim, and make accommodation for women in their society and political processes.  As far as the argument about the Koran is concerned, a thorough reading of the Old and New Testament does not identify democracy as an optimal form of government in these texts either.  Both the Old Testament and the New Testament make accommodation for slavery and set hard rules on some societal practices. 

From an aggregate historical standpoint, the Vatican has been on both the side of the monarchs and an active participant in secular politics. Therefore, the favoured religious text of any group of people does not appear to be an insurmountable impediment for democracy.  Even the harshest critics of the Iraq war have not made the case that Islam and democracy are contradictory. When my friends and colleagues state that Islam is the reason for Pakistan’s failure, they are not thinking of these historical nuances.  They are observing the empirical nature of the world’s democracies and their respective population characteristics. 

The second most common response was related to the nature of a Pakistani class structure that prevented economic development and  democracy.  At the time of Partition, Pakistan was based on a rural, feudal class-based system. Similar to post-Magna Carta Europe, landowners controlled the wealth, and the majority of the people worked the land. The merchant class was minimal and the landowners never relinquished control.  Because of this class system, as Pakistan evolved, post-Partition, the upper class precluded the inclusion of the lower class and therefore none of the development and resources flowed to the majority of the people.  Thus, the rigid nature of this class system has precluded Pakistan from educational and economic development and has saddled Pakistan with a class structure that hampers progress. 

The problem with this argument is that India was in exactly the same position. One can argue that the Hindu caste system is more rigid than the system that was pervasive in Pakistan at the time of partition.  An Israeli friend of mine summed it up well: “ I am not a big fan of Islamic fundamentalism, but Europe had just as much class rigidity in its history, and that has not prevented them from becoming successful democracies.  I doubt that this is why Pakistan has failed to become a strong democracy”.  Some observers have observed that India’s socialist structure instituted land reform, thereby preventing the asymmetric structure seen in Pakistan.  However, the same Indian socialist structure and central economic planning restricted India’s annual GDP to 3% for decades while Pakistan grew at an annual GDP rate of 5-6%.  While these class issues remain in Pakistan, India’s caste system is still well ingrained, particularly in rural areas.  The empirical evidence does not support this as the distinguishing issue and certainly does not explain the different progress of India as compared to Pakistan.

The third most common response was corruption.  The notion that corruption can undo any political or economic process is not contested.  Those who have travelled abroad into a developing country who have encountered the daily corruption that stifles the most trivial task have felt its weight.  However, as an argument to explain difference between India and Pakistan this idea does not hold up. The corruption perceptions index (CPI) published in 1995 gave Pakistan a score of 2.25, India a score 2.78, and China a score of 2.16.  The minimum score in that year was 1.94 (Indonesia) and the maximum score was 9.55 (New Zealand).  In 2008, India and Pakistan both have CPI scores below 3.5. (The CPI is been published annually by Transparency International)  So while it is true that Pakistan is burdened with a high level of corruption, so is India.

The fourth most common reason was ‘the west’, specifically the United States.  This critique is a variation of the critique offered by Dambiso Moyo in her book, Dead Aid.  In the case of Pakistan, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the subsequent engagement and foreign aid to Pakistan to help fight the Soviets bolstered the brutal military dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq.  In line with Moyo’s reasoning, foreign aid perpetuates poor governance because the ruling government controls the aid, and invariably uses much of it to support itself.  This line of argument suggests that if the US did not get involved, the poor governance of General ul-Haq would have been brought down sooner, and Pakistan’s democracy would have been returned.  Echoes of this argument were made again when the US supported Pervez Musharraf after the attacks of 9/11. 

The problems with this argument are numerous. Firstly, ul-Haq stepped down from his self-appointed Prime Ministerial post in 1986.  The Soviet-Afghan war continued until 1988.  In that same year, full democracy was restored and Benazir Bhutto was elected Prime Minister.  While it may be true that General ul-Haq utilized foreign aid to maintain power, the US government has continued aid since the Soviet-Afghan war to Pakistan to democratically elected leaders as well.  On the opposite side, India had received aid from the Soviet Union throughout the same time period.  India was part of the ‘non-aligned movement’, which really meant that they were aligned with the Soviet Union but did not want to be communists.  The argument that the west’s support of Pakistan was the sole reason for the asymmetry in Pakistan’s development compared to India’s is difficult to fathom. But it is likely that the generous US support of General ul-Haq’s government to help fight the Soviets probably allowed him to stay in power much longer than he otherwise might have.

An hypothesis emerges

This last fact leads me to my conclusion and final hypothesis regarding the difference of outcomes: the crucial factor is the cycle of dictatorship and democracy in Pakistan.  As I observe the histories of the two countries one glaring difference becomes clear.  India has had an unbroken chain of democracy since its inception and adoption of its constitution in 1950.  On the other hand, Pakistan has had an unbroken chain of ineffective democratic governments, followed by dictator-led ineffective governments since its inception and adoption of their constitution in 1956. 

From the very start, the Pakistani republic ran into trouble.  After the adoption of the constitution, Ayub Khan launched a military dictatorship and took power in 1958.  He remained in power until 1971, when Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto (father of Benazir Bhutto) became prime minister.  Bhutto remained in power until 1977 when General ul-Haq came to power. The cycle continues today with the recent removal of Pervez Musharraf and the reinstitution of an ineffective democratic government. 

So how does this cycle explain the differences between India and Pakistan? The reason is that the cycle described precludes development and investment in the citizens of the country.  Dictators build and develop only enough to keep their constituencies happy; they keep the rest for themselves or for their pet projects.  The ineffective democratic counter-cycle is not really a democracy of the people for the people.  It is an oligarchy of the dictator’s opposition.  In the end, the people get nothing.  Moreover, the longer the duration of dictatorship, the longer it takes the new government to govern on behalf of the people and the longer the new government remains in payback mode.  So when the west supports a dictator for short-term interests (e.g. Musharraff after 9/11), we must recognize that the extension and support of a dictator comes with costs.  Another illustration of this effect was when we supported the Shah in Iran.  The dictator fell, and the friends of the dictator (the US) became the enemies of the new regime for thirty years and running.

While not all dictatorship transitions to democratic rule remain trapped in this vicious circle, that is the exception rather than the rule.  Three countries emerging from longstanding dictatorships were able to break the cycle: Portugal, Spain, and Chile.  What these countries share in common is that the incoming governments moderated the payback to those who were previously in power.  They prosecuted the ‘big fish’, but they worked hard at reconciliation.  A counter-illustration of this was in Iraq. The new Shia Government and the US banished all members of B’aath Party and disbanded the military.  This was a form of payback, and the result was pushing all these people into the opposition of the new government: this certainly exacerbated the resistance and made the job of instituting an effective government harder.

Because India was able to maintain a democratic process since its inception, the politicians occasionally took time off from fighting each other to actually govern.  They were compelled to build roads, schools, and other infrastructure so they could get votes to try and stay in power.  When the opposition came into power, they directed resources for their constituencies, but they did not tear down the opposition’s work: they just preferentially supported their interest groups.  This is democracy at work: slow sputtering ugly progress, but progress nonetheless.  This is the central reason why India has managed to progress over the past sixty years and why Pakistan remains so far behind.

About the author

Lakhmir Chawla is the Co-Founder of Kids Against Hunger DC Metro which is a charity focused on alleviating world hunger, and he is an Associate Professor at George Washington University in Washington DC, USA.