Why India could preserve its democracy while Pakistan could not

On the midnight of 14th and 15th August, two nation-States were born in South Asia. Both of these had vastly different fortunes. While one of these was successful in forming and upholding democratic traditions and institutions, the other descended into anarchy, military coups, and eventual chaos. Read this article to know about the reasons for this difference despite both countries having a similar past.

A tale of two nations

India became independent from British rule in 1947. Three years later, its constitution was formally approved. And further two years down the line, the first general elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Legislatures were conducted successfully. On the other hand, Pakistan's constitution could be approved only in 1956. Soon after that, General Ayub Khan assumed the control of the civilian leadership through a coup against President Iskander Mirza. After almost a decade, the General was replaced by another man in uniform, General Yahya Khan. Since then, civilian and military rule has been seen in alternation in the country. On the other hand, except for the brief space of two years, between 1975 and 1977, India has managed to retain a democratic structure (and that period too, was not military but rather a 'civilian' dictatorship).

Obviously, it is possible to point out several limitations of Indian democracy. However, the very fact that we have remained a democracy while most other Asian and African former colonies have seen the light of democracy flicker and extinguish after a period is worthy of praise: praise which perhaps has not been showered adequately.

Looking for reasons

What was the factor which acted in the Indian but did not in the case of the other countries? Was it the strength of our constitution? Or was it the commitment of our leaders and the people towards democratic values? Or was it perhaps a combination of all these factors? On a thorough examination, we will see that the ordinary people of India and Pakistan were not all that different, at least at the time of independence. Both of these countries contained poor and illiterate people who had to equally bear the trauma of partition. The majority of people in both of these countries had practically zero experience in the working of democratic institutions.

The Congress and the League

One of the reasons why India survived as a democracy while Pakistan did not is related to one of the fundamental differences between the Muslim League and the Congress. While the League only had a handful of popular leaders like Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan, the Congress had a vibrant spectrum of leaders drawn from all ideologies and social groups. What also helped was that the people at the top of the Congress hierarchy, including Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Rajaji were all strongly committed to democratic values. It is logical that when the party in power is a strong one, there is practically no room for the military to meddle in civil administration. After Jinnah's death, the League simply could not hold out against the army.

Political vibrancy

What also helped in the Indian case was that India had a good number of powerful opposition parties even at the time of independence: perhaps a greater number of parties than most established democracies. When people would be disappointed with the performance of the Congress, they could go for the Communists, the Jana Sangh or the Socialists or parties like the Swatantra Party. The persons who led these opposition parties were also broadly in agreement with the values of a democratic polity. The presence of healthy opposition parties ensured that the dissatisfaction did not turn into space for the military to enter.

Restructuring the army

Perhaps what was most important was that the armed forces in India were restructured after independence in such a manner that a coup was not really possible. In India, there was a total separation between the civilian and the military leadership with the civilian leadership being made more powerful vis-à-vis the military. Three separate chiefs of staff were appointed (in place of the earlier provision of a Commander-in-Chief) in India. The paramilitary forces like CRPF were made responsible for internal security. Also, no one ethnic group was allowed to dominate the armed forces. All of these measures ensured that by 1970, the possibility of a coup in India was practically zero.

Look at what happened in Pakistan in contrast. General Ayub Khan was the Defence Minister from 1953-1958. The Pakistani army was overwhelmingly Punjabi. The earlier system of Commander-in-Chief continued in Pakistan. Pakistan, in fact, continued to follow the earlier British system where the C-in-C was second in administration only to the Viceroy.

The army and development

An incident was recounted in an old article in Scroll (online news portal). During riots in Lahore in the 1950s, when the civilian administration failed in controlling the riots, the army stepped in. Not only were the riots controlled, the Pakistan army even undertook beautification of the city and accomplished something which the central, provincial or municipal government could not do in several years. This explains why there was little popular opposition during the 1958 coup. In India, although the government did fail in important aspects, the lack of development never became that big an issue that the army had to step into a political role.

In India, the entire ethos of the Indian army was to follow the direction of the elected representatives, even during wartime. The army-men never felt the need to issue public statements or give speeches etc. When those in uniform criticised the government, it was generally looked upon with disfavour and suspicion (Field Marshall Cariappa's comments regarding India's economic situation in the 1950s were received with condemnation). And except for certain rare cases, former army officers were generally not inducted into political parties.

A democratic mentality

In its entire history as an independent nation, Pakistan only had one free and mostly fair election. That was the election when Sheikh Mujeeb's Awami League swept through East Pakistan and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto won a majority in the western half. The West Pakistan based leadership refused to accept this verdict. Instead, a reign of terror was imposed on the Bengali population on East Pakistan. The result was the split of the country into two.

Contrast this with the General Elections in India, just six years after that. This election was held after two years of Emergency. Indira Gandhi was soundly defeated. Yet she did not try to hold onto power. Rather a smooth transition of power from Congress to the Janata Party proved to be a symbol of the maturity of India's democracy. Perhaps over the years, the democratic mentality which had evolved in India is completely different from the autocratic mentality prevailing in Pakistan. Nevertheless, with a relatively courageous media, increasing literacy and prevalence of human rights groups, maybe Pakistan might see actual democracy evolve in their country. This would perhaps bring in a greater possibility of peace in the region.

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Author: Umesh21 Mar 2019 Member Level: Platinum   Points : 4

A good analysis by the author and a nice sketch of what has happened in these two countries since independence.

Any country where religious stubbornness resides over the directive principles cannot develop and progress and the democracy cannot survive there. For a country to progress there are certain vital elements like education, discipline, respect for the constitutional framework and think of nation first and give weight to one's culture, religion or beliefs only after that.

Israel is one country which has kept aside its all the religious beliefs and has gone for compulsory military training for all the citizens whether women or men. Religion is not a national culture, it is something that a person observes personally in his house for peace and solace. Another thing is the opposition should critically oppose the ruling party in a constructive mode. If the opposition has only one agenda that is to topple the present regime and become the ruler themselves then the whole purpose of opposition in a democracy is lost and it is unfortunate that Pakistan is suffering from such undercurrents in its political system.

The world is moving ahead fast with new inventions and technological growths but some countries are going to old barbaric days when communities just killed other communities because they belonged to another religion or philosophy.

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