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Monday, Oct 21, 2019

Politics or history: What is Pakistan's bigger problem

Pakistan's trouble with democracy has often been associated with its creation as a one-religion nation. But which is a bigger problem - its politics or its history?

books Updated: Feb 28, 2015 11:18 IST
Shaikh Mujibur Rehman
Shaikh Mujibur Rehman
Hindustan Times
A-woman-scatters-flowers-in-front-of-a-photograph-of-Benazir-Bhutto-AP-Photo( )

In the good old days, scholars, diplomats and, of course, political leaders from India often thumped their chests with pride as they pronounced that, as opposed to Pakistan's choice to be a theocratic nation, the decision to keep India secular had contributed to preserving its democratic tradition.

That seems to be out of fashion these days as a majority of Indians seem to draw a special comfort from seeing the country becoming an increasingly Hindu India, a mirror image of a Muslim Pakistan. Only time will tell how similar the two countries will become in the coming years.

On Pakistan's trouble with democracy, we often argued, "Pakistan is failing because there was something seriously wrong with its birth, its desire to be a nation of one religion. Its failure is inevitable!"

This was the first and often only argument in most academic conferences around the world. I once described the urge to ascribe Pakistan's recurrent problem with democracy to its birth as a Brahminical one: since Pakistan was born in a wrong way, things would never work out for it. But societies, like human beings, face crises not just because they were born under the wrong circumstances. They face them because they are raised in wrong ways, in a dangerous neighbourhood where foes appeared friendlier and friends did not stand by in times of need.

In short, Pakistan's trouble is not just how its blood stained advent took place but also how its ruling elites, both military and political, placed Pakistanis outside their project of Pakistan.

Where lies the bigger problem, in its politics or its history? After more than six decades, to blame everything on history could be stretching it a bit too far. How much detachment from history is necessary to make a persuasive political explanation about Pakistan's struggle? Ayesha Jalal, a fine historian, seeks to strike a balance between politics and history as she tells us what is wrong with contemporary Pakistan.

The book begins with a narrative about the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007, outside the north gate of Rawalpindi's historic Liaquat Bagh. The place is named after Pakistan's first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, who was also assassinated on October 16, 1951. She claims, and rightly so, that the most salient development that has decisively influenced Pakistan's political course is the ascendence of its military to a dominant position in its governance structure. In the next two chapters, she reflects on the historical aspects of nation building discussing in detail the politics and political players of the time. She concludes by saying, "Yet the conversion of Pakistan in a state of martial rule was not pre-ordained. The military's rise to dominance as early as the 1950s can be understood only in the context of the regional and global challenges of the Cold war."(p.60).

The Struggle for Pakistan; A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics.

Ayesha Jalal Belknap Press of Harvard, University Press; Rs 995; PP 435

There are two other chapters, one entitled Toward the Watershed of 1971 and another called Rise and Fall of populism, that offer deep insights into the geo-politics of the time. They present very interesting perspectives of the strategies of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Indira Gandhi. Jalal recognises that both leaders feared the implications of a truly democratic party, and both chose not to organise party bases at the grassroots. Both depended on the centralised state. In the case of Bhutto, the presence of a powerful army made the task far more difficult.

While this comparison is very useful there is more to that nation's political trends. It is true that Pakistan had a powerful army. It also did not have a Jayaprakash Narayan. It is crucial to reflect a bit more deeply on the political developments of this period, not just on how India's electoral democracy survived but also on how it created opportunities for the Hindu right wing to find legitimacy and subsequently consolidate in later years, which led to the later rise of a Hindu India. There is some crisscrossing in the respective trajectories of the politics of India and Pakistan.

These trends have a bearing on the contemporary predicament of India's struggle with secularism and Pakistan's struggle for democracy. What is important to underline here is that while there has been a great deal of emphasis by secular historians on the blunder called Partition, there has not been enough stress on how much the mistrust between neighbours contributed to both behaving like pawns in the hands of the two major players of the Cold war. Of course, respective ruling elites justified these associations as ideological or even pragmatist. On both sides, there was a significant decline in development expenditure as opposed to defence expenditure creating a financial structure that has been pro-elite and anti- people on both sides.

Can Pakistan ever be a functioning democracy? Jalal seems hopeful but not too confident. She recognises that the challenges are almost insurmountable. She alludes to the moments of the Arab Spring of 2011 and claims, "There is a world of difference between an ineffective government that can at least be voted out of office, and the abject failure of democratic processes. which military interventions unvaryingly signify."(p.396) This reviewer agrees when she writes: "The citizens of Jinnah's Muslim homeland have a voice still in determining its future."

But to achieve this end, citizens need to care for each other and not as members of institutions such as the army, or of political dynasties like the Bhuttos or the Sharifs. How to restore that collective sense of identity, and its commitment to Pakistan is a challenge, which needs further analysis. Additionally, how to create a similar South Asian identity, and a commitment towards that is another key challenge. This book, particularly its attempt to reflect on the interface of politics and history, provides some clue about striving towards such a goal. Scholars of South Asia will profit from reading The Struggle for Pakistan, which excels in the art of writing simultaneously about the politics and history of a country whose normal life is vital for global peace.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman is the author of Communalism in Post-Colonial India: Changing Contours (Routlege, forth-coming). He teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi

First Published: Feb 28, 2015 08:54 IST

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