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Counterpoint: Two nations, two choices

The main reason why India and Pakistan have followed such divergent paths is because of the choices made by them after Independence, writes Vir Sanghvi.

columns Updated: Apr 23, 2008 15:24 IST

There’s been a lot about Pakistan in the Indian media over the last 10 days: obituaries of Benazir Bhutto; predictions about the forthcoming election; attacks on General Musharraf; and conspiracy theories about the assassination.

<b1>I have no problems with much of the coverage, but I am disappointed by the unwillingness of most commentators to go further back in history. After all, Pakistan was once a part of India. Both countries secured independence within a day of each other in 1947. And both made many important choices in the decades that followed: choices that explain why Pakistan and India have developed so differently.

And yet, there was a complete absence of historical perspective in much of the analysis. Even a decade ago, I suspect that we would have covered Pakistan’s tragic slide into anarchy very differently.

It’s still fashionable for a certain kind of north Indian to say about Pakistan and Pakistanis, “we are the same country divided by politicians. And we are the same people.” But as the years go by and new generations take over, this sentiment is fading. Punjabis may feel a kinship with Pakistan — many belong to families divided by Partition — but the rest of India seems much less empathetic.

I’ve been in Bombay and Bangalore since Benazir’s assassination and it was interesting to note how little people cared about events in Pakistan and how quickly even that interest has begun to fade.

And if you follow the international press, you’ll note that the old equivalence, where India and Pakistan were always talked about in the same breath, has now vanished. If Pakistan is compared to any country, it is to Afghanistan. India, on the other hand, tends increasingly to be compared to China. Few foreign journos even bother with the clichés they once used when they referred to Pakistan — such as, for instance: “compared to its democratic neighbour India”. And rarely does the prospect of another India-Pakistan war (a traditional obsession with Western journalists) intrude into their analysis of events in that troubled country.


I remind you of all this to make two separate points. One: we must not let the largely Delhi- and north Indian-dominated ‘national’ media blind us to the increasing irrelevance of Pakistan as a factor in determining India’s future. Punjabi journos may be fascinated by Pakistan; the rest of us are merely curious.

But it is the second point that I regard as more significant. In the 1950s and in the 1960s, when India was ruled by a Nehruvian consensus, there were many critics — usually on the political right — who thought we had got it badly wrong. How did it benefit India, they asked, to follow some crackpot policy of non-alignment which involved a surreptitious tilt to the Soviet Bloc when we could so easily be friends with the US, the world’s most powerful democracy?

<b2>Look at Pakistan, they said. Its rulers recognised that there was much to be gained from linking up with Washington and enjoying the benefits of American patronage. A steady stream of American aid dollars flowed into Pakistan. The armed forces had access to the latest weaponry.

The streets of Karachi and Lahore were full of imported cars — not a Landmaster or an Ambassador in sight. Nor did Pakistanis have to put up with all this socialist nonsense. They valued free enterprise and were proud to say so.

The America-Pakistan equation frequently annoyed Indians. It sent us into paroxysms of rage when Richard Nixon and Harry Kissinger backed Pakistan’s whisky-sodden General Yahya Khan while his troops were committing genocide in Bangladesh. And anti-Americanism reached a peak when Nixon sent the Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 India-Pakistan war. (He wanted to warn us off invading West Pakistan). During the Zia-ul-Haq era, when Pakistan’s economy seemed robust and billions of dollars were pumped into the state treasury while we struggled to make ends meet, many educated Indians sincerely wondered whether we were paying the price for Pandit Nehru’s mistaken choices. Hadn’t Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s heirs got it right while we floundered? Wouldn’t India have been better off on America’s side?

There was a corollary to all this. In the 1960s, the Jan Sangh and Swatantra parties, which wanted us to renounce Nehruvian non-alignment and rush into Washington’s embrace, also made the point that there was no harm in declaring that Hinduism was India’s state religion. If Pakistan could flourish as a Muslim country, then why should India be shy of owning up to its Hindu heritage?

With the benefit of hindsight, we can today safely say that every single one of those propositions was flawed.

There were only two major Asian countries that rejected the US prescription for development and foreign policy: India and China. And look where they are today. And look at America’s client states.

The case of Pakistan is especially instructive. Because it believed all the American dogma about free trade, it never built for itself the kind of industrial base that India constructed at such huge sacrifice in the name of self-reliance. Because it tied itself so closely to US foreign policy, its diplomats did whatever America wanted, even helping pimp the first assignation between Kissinger and the Chinese in 1971.

There’s no denying that Pakistan got many Sabre jets and Patton tanks (remember the 1965 War?) along with billions of dollars in aid. It also got away with genocide in 1971. And the US turned a blind eye while its scientists ran a nuclear black market.

Treat those benefits as rent paid by America. Because Washington turned Pakistan into its largest military base, an entire country at the service of Uncle Sam. In the 1960s, it was used to keep a watch on Russia (the U2 spy planes took off from there); in the 1970s, it served as a back channel for China-US diplomacy; in the 1980s, it was used for the Afghan ‘jehad’; and now, it is a launch pad for a crucial part of the ‘War on Terror’.

The Americans had no interest in developing Pakistan’s economy or in promoting the institutions of democracy. They preferred to deal with a succession of military dictators (Ayub Khan, Yahya, Zia and now Musharraf) because it was both easier and quicker.

And they actively exploited Pakistan’s lack of secularism — its very raison d’être was its status as an Islamic nation — to launch the world’s first high-tech jehad, thereby unleashing the fundamentalist and terrorist forces that are tearing Pakistan apart today.

Looking back, it is hard to see how any country could have got it more wrong than Pakistan did. Every single choice it made — foreign policy, economic, religious, political etc — seems, in retrospect, to have been a disastrous mistake.

In contrast, Nehru created the modern Indian republic, one of 21st century’s potential superpowers. The same Americans who once dismissed India as a Russian lackey now throng our airports looking for investment opportunities. When their President comes to India, he talks to our Prime Minister on equal terms and discusses foreign policy. When he goes to Pakistan on the other hand, he merely instructs their President on which terrorists to hand over to US authorities.

Of course, Nehru made mistakes. But can anybody really deny that the principal reason why India and Pakistan, once part of the same country, have followed such divergent paths is because of the choices both countries made in the years following independence?

At first, India’s priorities may have seemed (from a middle-class perspective) wrong-headed and muddled. Pakistan’s may have seemed glamorous and instantly gratifying. But, in the long run, we ended up as the superpower. And Pakistan as the failed state.

The divergent paths we have taken and the different destinations we have reached explain why, outside of the north, Pakistan seems like no more than a curiosity to most Indians. There is a historical legacy, but our presents are very different, and our futures have nothing in common.

I respect Punjabi sentimentality about Lahore with its filmi notion of brothers separated by circumstances. But if our history was really a Hindi film and if we were brothers, then at this point in the plot, Pakistan is the brother who has gone astray, the mawaali for whom there is no hope. India is the good brother, working hard, respecting the law, and finding success.

But, Punjabi sentimentality and Bollywood aside, how can one not feel sorry for the people of Pakistan, betrayed by a succession of incompetent leaders, seduced by a superpower concerned only with its own interests, and bewildered by the tricks that fate has played on their beleaguered country?

History is full of ifs and buts. So who knows how things would have turned out? But just suppose there had been no Partition. Would these same people have lived a very different life? Would they have been part of the Indian success story?

That’s a question for the ghost of Mohammed Ali Jinnah to answer.