India and Pakistan achieved their independence from Britain 70 years ago, through the partitioning of India into two states. Both had a significant number of religious minorities, even after partition. Although Pakistan was created to be a homeland for Muslims, in contrast to the secular ideology of India, it was not created as a theocracy. Pakistan’s founding father – Jinnah - spoke in favour of democracy, federalism and the accommodation of minorities. It is important to remember that there was nothing inevitable about the democratic record of India compared to that of Pakistan.
As I have argued elsewhere with Andrew Wyatt, the reason why Pakistan followed a different democratic trajectory than India was primarily related to the weakness of the main political party, the Muslim League. Unlike the Congress Party in India that had strong local networks across the country, the Muslim League in Pakistan was a much weaker organisation. Its base had been in the provinces that remained in India after partition, and the leaders of the Muslim League lacked local knowledge and networks in Pakistan. Even before this, the League had been a very elitist organisation, and, unlike Congress, had not sought to accommodate the linguistic diversity of the territories that became Pakistan. They sought to unify Pakistan around the idea of Islam and believed that recognition of linguistic diversity would weaken the newly formed country. They promoted Urdu as the single state language: spoken by the leaders who had migrated from India but spoken by less than four percent of Pakistan’s population. It took until 1954 before Bengali (spoken by 55 percent of the population) was recognised as a dual state language, and until 1973 when additional provincial languages were recognised. This rejection of the multinational nature of Pakistan damaged Pakistan’s nation-building, the reverberations of which continue today. This was in direct contrast to India’s acceptance of its linguistic diversity.
The refusal of Pakistan’s elites to accommodate the diversity within its territory alienated many from the state but so did the fact that national elections were not held until 1970 – almost thirty years after independence. The weakness of the Muslim League meant that its leaders were unwilling to call elections that may have removed them from power. Ayub Khan’s eventual coup in 1958 cemented the power of the army (already a powerful organisation within Pakistan because of the conflict with India over Kashmir) over the weak and factionalised politicians.
However, Pakistan’s history since 1958 has not been an inevitable slide towards authoritarianism. There have been ‘critical junctures’ in Pakistan’s history when civilians had the opportunity to sideline the army. One was after the secession of Bangladesh in 1971, when the army was discredited. However, rather than promoting civilian control, the premier of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, used the army to quell (although in fact it escalated) a conflict in the province of Balochistan. The increased power of the army resulted in his own dismissal by Zia-ul Huq in 1977. In the 1980s and 1990s after the return to democracy, politicians – including Nawaz Sharif - similarly worked with the army to remove their political opponents, motivated by their own political careers at the expense of the democratic system and democratic culture of Pakistan.
There were signs that this had changed after the elections of 2008. The leaders of the main political parties, the PPP and the PMLN, agreed in the Charter of Democracy to work together and, despite attempts by the military to mobilise these parties against each other, unity prevailed, leading to the passing of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 2010, reducing presidential powers and strengthening provincial autonomy. The parliament completed its term in 2013 and, importantly for the consolidation of a democratic system, the PPP stepped aside and let the PMLN take power. The elections were internationally recognised as free and fair. This demonstrated the importance of civilian unity in curtailing the power of the military. This unity looked likely to prevail with the major parties preventing Imran Khan's military supported attempts to dismiss Nawaz Sharif in 2014.
However, the dismissal of Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister poses a renewed threat to Pakistan’s democracy. Although a crack down on corrupt politicians is welcome and the application of the rule of law is vital for the consolidation of democracy, the selective application of the law bodes ill for the future of democracy in Pakistan. Although Pakistan performs well in terms of formal democratic procedures (e.g. free and fair elections, voter turnout) it performs much less well in terms of civil liberties (e.g. freedom of speech, press and association and the neutral application of the rule of law). As I have written elsewhere, the challenge to civil liberties threatens the democratic status of Pakistan as much as the power of the military. Increased judicial activism, if politically motivated, does nothing to enhance democracy and may well consolidate the informal influence of the military over the political realm – albeit without a formal coup.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.