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Why India and Pakistan Have Such Different Political Cultures

27/03/2015 8:12 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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AAMIR QURESHI via Getty Images
A Pakistani paramilitary soldier keeps watch outside a special court set up to try former Pakistani military ruler Pervez Musharraf after the case was adjourned in Islamabad on January 29, 2014. Musharraf faces treason charges dating back to his 1999-2008 rule but has not shown up for any hearings of a special tribunal due to security fears and lately a heart complaint. The 70-year-old former army chief has been in a military hospital since falling ill while travelling to the tribunal on January 2. AFP PHOTO/Aamir QURESHI (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

In political science literature, Pakistan and India's apparently divergent political trajectories are often treated as a puzzle. Despite the fact that both countries were carved out of the British empire, India has ended up as a democracy with civilians firmly in control, whereas Pakistan has witnessed a number of direct military rules and has always suffered from severe civil-military imbalance. Moreover, India has managed its ethnic and communal diversity much better than Pakistan.

So what are the reasons?

Firstly, one has to understand that the military in weak Third World countries is often the only well-disciplined, centralised and sophisticated institution. Due to the relative weakness of democratic institutions, the military often intervenes to bring "stability" and restore order. The Third World has thus witnessed a number of coups and Pakistan is no exception. And though military interventions are by no means desirable, they are understandable in the context of tremulous political cultures.

In Pakistan, the genesis of military rule is rooted in the way the Pakistan movement shaped up -- and the complex interplay of the dynamics of the movement with the cultural and political characteristics of the region which eventually became Pakistan.

When compared to India's freedom struggle, Pakistan's striving for independence became a mass movement at a very late stage. The Congress was born in 1885 and by the 1920s, India's independence movement had large mass support. On the other hand, the Muslim League even in early 1940s had not garnered the same kind of popular support. Ironically, the areas where it was actually more influential subsequently became part of India.

It was only in the second half of the 1940s that the Muslim League made built a mass base in the areas which subsequently became Pakistan.

"The genesis of military rule is rooted in the way the Pakistan movement shaped up -- and the complex interplay of the dynamics of the movement with the cultural and political characteristics of the region which eventually became Pakistan."

These regional factors played an important role in shaping the respective roles of the military in both countries. In India, the political class was dominant from the beginning and moreover the public did not perceive the army as saviours; after all, the Indian army had served loyally under the British empire. The entrenched political culture ensured that the Indian movement for freedom made a smooth transition into a functioning democracy from the word go.

Moreover, Nehru remained at the political helm in the initial years of independence and provided much-needed political stability. The military was never in a position to stage a coup since India lacked the necessary chaos for it to intervene and because the army had an "image" issue due to its close association with colonial rule. Nehru's revered and towering status also prevented the development of any militaristic Bonapartism.

Pakistan, however, was founded in an area which had already been militarized. Most of the recruitment was taking place from the so-called "martial races" of Punjab and what is now Khyber Pukhtunkhawa. Moreover, the state apparatus was stronger in Punjab and local politicians had to rely a lot on the civil bureaucracy in order to get things "done". The reliance of the political class on the state apparatus in areas falling under West Pakistan was much greater than in areas which later became India.

When Pakistan came into being, the Muslim League despite having gained support in the last two years was still not a deeply rooted political party in West Pakistan. The main leaders of the League actually belonged to regions which were in India and when they came to Pakistan, they were without the same kind of support. In addition, Jinnah through charismatic did not live long and his one-year rule was as Governor General and highly personalised.

"An extremely important factor was the fear of annexation by India. To a certain extent it was also whipped up by the establishment to keep the country 'united'. "

In the initial years, the army was needed again and again to both at the external front (Kashmir) as well as to restore internal order (riots of 1953). While army's role strengthened during this time, the political landscape was fraught with chaos and repeated changes of government. The political class weakened in the absence of a stabilising leader (Liaquat Ali Khan was shot dead in 1951) and a political infrastructure underpinned by proper political culture.

While government heads kept changing, the Chief of Army Staff continued to gain power. Moreover, while India saw several different army chiefs in the decade following independence, Pakistan persisted with just one, General Ayub Khan.

An extremely important factor was the fear of annexation by India. To a certain extent it was also whipped up by the establishment to keep the country "united". Pakistan constantly had to be in the state of readiness for war. The security apparatus had to be given power and even autonomy.

The constant fear of India also meant that defense spending had to be kept very high. Repeated changes of governments and chaotic situations provided the impetus for the military intervention. And when Ayub Khan staged his coup in 1958, was actually a sigh of relief.

The political culture of India, mainly due to the way its independence struggle unfolded and because of the presence of Nehru, Patel and extraordinary individuals like Dr. Ambedkar, ensured that it remained a democracy despite the fact that in pure historical and socioeconomic terms, there was little difference between the two countries.

"In India, connecting everything together was the deep belief in secularism and federalism... Compared to Pakistan, India has also been better able to cultivate what is known as civic nationalism."

Over time, these initial differences became institutionalized and both countries stayed the course on the different trajectories they had taken.

In India, connecting everything together was the deep belief in secularism and federalism. Secularism ensured that communal rifts did not become too deep and federalism kept ethno-linguistic divisions in check. Compared to Pakistan, India has also been better able to cultivate what is known as civic nationalism.

Right now, India is once again at a crossroads. The Modi Sarkar is in power, and although Indians by and large voted in the BJP for its promises of better governance, hardliners and social conservatives have been trying to push the government towards a communal agenda. I sincerely hope that the Modi government fully understands that giving in to such demands would reverse the gains that India has made since Independence.

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