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

  • Published

India, Pakistan, and Democracy: Solving the Puzzle of Divergent Paths by Phillip Oldenburg. Routledge, 2010, 273 pp., $49.95.

One of the interesting puzzles discussed by students of comparative politics since the 1960s has been why India and Pakistan, both from the same British colonial system with similar institutions, took divergent political paths. Pakistan, in the words of the late Samuel P. Huntington, became an in-out democracy that in effect has been dominated by a coalition between a senior partner (the military) and a junior partner (the bureaucracy). The judiciary, a necessary regulatory arm of any successful democracy has till recently been an invisible actor in the Pakistani political process. India, on the other hand, despite a hiccup in the 1970s when then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, imposed authoritarian rule, has remained a fairly robust democracy.

Oldenburg’s book does a fair review of the literature—two notable omissions are the writings of the Indian scholar Sisir Gupta and those of Wilfred Cantwell Smith—and comes to the conclusion that both countries have the “regime that they had yesterday.” India has managed to retain the democratic system that emerged as a result of a robust nationalist movement institutionalized over three generations and given constitutional form thanks to the genius of Jawaharlal Nehru. Pakistan has remained dominated by the military and the bureaucracy, although in 2013 for the first time in its history, an elected government will complete its term in office.

Oldenburg recites the standard set of arguments used to explain the divergent paths the two countries took: India had a nationalist movement while the Muslim League was not a real political force in the space it ended up inheriting; Nehru was at the helm of Indian affairs for 17 years and was both a constitutionalist and an avowed democrat; Jinnah and Liaqat Ali Khan both died before they could impose their political will on a politically immature Pakistan; in Pakistan, the military and the bureaucracy seized power while in India the military and the bureaucracy maintained the relationship that had been laid out for them first by the British and later by the Indian constitution.

The role of Nehru is worth highlighting, since he encouraged political dissent and did not develop a cult of personality. He only banned the Communist Party of India for a short time, when its leadership sought to wage an armed insurrection, but subsequently released the communists to participate in the political process and, in fact, the various communist parties have held seats in the Indian parliament since the first national election of 1952. Further, it was under Nehru’s guidance that India established a constituent assembly and spent nearly two years publicly debating the shape of the future Indian constitution. In contrast, Asia’s other great democracy, Japan, had its constitution written for it by the occupying forces of GEN Douglas MacArthur.

Oldenberg correctly addresses another myth that had Jinnah and Liaqat lived longer they would have been able to democratize Pakistan. As he points out, “Nor can we imagine away the loss of Jinnah though we would also have to reimagine him as having a more Nehruvian commitment to democracy. Liaquat’s early death was also important; but again, it is not clear that he would have worked hard to institutionalize democracy” (p. 225). Pakistan was perhaps doomed from the start because, while it had politicians who were able tacticians, they were poor statesmen.

Additionally, the intellectual debate in India over the future course the country would take was based on secular and ideological arguments—should India become a modern technocratic state in the Nehruvian vision or one more focused on developing its villages in the Gandhian conception of national development? Pakistan struggled not only over issues of constitutionalism but also over the Islamic nature of the future government and society.

Oldenberg’s book is most interesting when he covers the contemporary period in the two countries. Starting from 1977, when Bhutto took irrevocable steps to weaken democracy and legitimize the military in Pakistan, and Indira Gandhi decided to return to the democratic process by holding a national election. He shows why the paths taken in the immediate years following independence were perpetuated by the political processes in both countries. Of particular interest is his discussion of the role of religion in the political systems of both states. Oldenberg points out that the move toward Islamization in Pakistan did not add that much to the preponderance of power that the military wields thanks to its institutional strengths, external links, and economic interests (p. 160). While in India, the growth of Hindutva has had no obvious role in strengthening politicians or weakening the states claim to a right to rule (p. 161). Both assertions correctly base the political trends in both countries on structural issues rather than on any perceived religious agenda.

Oldenberg concludes by saying that while the structures built on India’s democratic process have weakened, the complexity of the country, economic forces, and globalization are all pushing it in a direction where democracy continues to work. On the other hand, while there may be rapid economic growth for Pakistan, the hold of the military over the state apparatus is unlikely to weaken unless the country can go back to its roots and address the issue of balancing political power and the role of the state apparatus. The latter is easier said than done and would only be possible if the military was severely discredited in a future war or if, as may well happen, the politicians agree to play by the rules of the constitution and allow the political process to operate smoothly.

          Overall this is a good book for practitioners and scholars who wish to understand why South Asia’s two major nations took such divergent political paths.

Amit Gupta, PhD

Air War College, Maxwell AFB



"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."