Mr.Harish Khare’s simple lessons from Pakistan & the risk of over-simplification

Mr.Harish Khare’s op-ed piece has stirred a lively debate on our blog. I hope to carry it forward by expressing my unease over this analysis, which has seemingly been endorsed by Arun and Dilip. Mr.Khare seems to attribute Pakistan’s present and past predicament of army take-overs to the culture of confrontation. He, therefore, assumes that we may face similar consequences if we give in to this culture, that is, putting a premium on the right to oppose, without the obligation to produce minimum orderly conduct of governing processes.

This overly tempting inference, however, overlooks certain historical truths regarding army take-overs in Pakistan. At the time of independence, Pakistan had no well-developed party organization, and as a result, it was not able to steer its way to a stable, consensus based political culture. The Muslim League was never able to transform itself from a nationalist movement into a national party. The Congress Party, on the contrary, was able to perform the twin tasks of institution building and political mobilization more successfully. The Muslim League did not promote the culture of internal discussion and working as a team. Most Muslim League leaders hailed from Muslim minority provinces in undivided India and lacked the popular base in Pakistan territory. Therefore, they were not inclined towards holding early elections.

Besides, Pakistan faced certain unfortunate historical circumstances. Jinnah died in September 1948. The first PM, Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated in October 1951. The absence of competent leadership – in contrast to Nehru’s continuous leadership for nearly two decades since independence in India – contributed to the politics of confrontation and non-consensus.

Bengalis constituted majority population of Pakistan (54%). It was clear that election on the basis of adult franchise would shift the power away from the Punjabi-Muhajir elite to the Bengalis. The reluctance to resort to Parliamentary democracy in the early years, therefore, stems from this fear.

Pakistan Army was created from scratch. As Stephen P.Cohen mentions in his seminal work The Pakistan Army (1984), it inherited very few training institutions; it was seriously deficient in most stores, supplies, and weapons, and it received far fewer officers with staff college or advanced training than did the Indian Army. This meant that it was dependent on British officers for its first four years, and this led to a mixed legacy of pride and bitterness at having to create a virtually new army in the face of active Indian hostility. This explains why Pak Army was not rooted in the tradition of non-interference in the political domain like the Indian Army.

Although civilian incompetence (which may be to a limited extent comparable to present day India)might have been a factor, it was not a decisive factor why Army took over the reins of Government repeatedly.

The Pakistan Army, another scholar Veena Kukreja remarks in her book (Contemporary Pakistan, Sage, 2003), entered the political arena with the explicit intention to ward off challenges to its alliance with the civil services and certain dominant social and economic classes. The theory of filling up the vacuum, to explain Army take-overs, may be too tempting to adopt, but in reality, it conceals several other factors.

As Khare notes, democracy has always been a messy arrangement. In Pakistan, it was not allowed to be so from the beginning because of peculiar historical circumstances. Khare’s analysis would have been convincing had Pakistan been a continuous experiment in democracy, and suddenly collapsing under the weight of intractable political confrontation. But that has not been the case. Pakistan’s present turmoil cannot be traced to any recent betrayal of public trust by politicians: it is a product of certain historical factors. Had India faced similar factors at the time of its birth, probably we might have faced similar consequences.

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1 comment
  • Thank you for an excellent post. I can only add two things. Surely the cold war, and the way in which geostrategic flows of arms and money affected Pakistan, as well as war on its borders, have something to do with its condition? Equally, I wonder at democracy in a place with such the sort of political class which is so out of touch with people that can be seen in Pakistan.
    With best wishes (and an attachment to the great tradition of Chief Justice Cornelius)