Looking at India will be of enormous help for fashioning Pakistan’s political order. Not to imply that Pakistan should follow what India is doing, but there are some lessons from what happened to India’s political system as it evolved.
As Pakistan stumbled from one political crisis to another, many looked with envy at what the Indians had achieved — they managed to create a political system that worked reasonably well for a country much more diverse than Pakistan. That happened for basically two reasons. The first was leadership continuity during the country’s formative years. From 1947 to 1964, India was governed essentially by one man: former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He was not only one of the founding fathers of India but was also a committed democrat. The second reason for India’s more robust political development was that unlike the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), the Congress Party in India did not lose its raison d’être the moment the country won independence.
The PML was a one-issue party. As the All-India Muslim League, its predecessor, it had only one mission: the establishment of a separate homeland for the Muslims of British India. Once that was achieved, the party failed to redefine itself. It floundered. The Congress Party had a more ambitious political agenda: to end colonial rule, keep India united and create a political, social and economic system that would improve the well-being of the common Indian citizen. The two major leaders of the pre-independence India had two very different ideologies for achieving the third objective. MK Gandhi wanted to do it by returning India to its traditions in which the citizen’s welfare was based on the work of small communities, essentially villages or “little republics”. Nehru, on the other hand, wanted to bring European socialism into India. The Soviet Union became his model as he began to shape public economic policies.
The Congress continued to dominate the political system for half a century but then, because of the way the party itself was governed, a number of regional parties emerged to challenge it. The Indian system developed and, as pointed out by Pratap Bahnu Mehta in a recent Foreign Affairs article, “Indian politicians and bureaucrats all shared four basic management principles — vertical accountability, wide discretion, secrecy and centralisation — all of which made for a government that was representative but not responsive”. The two principles that mattered most were the fact that leaders at all levels of the system looked up to the person at the very top. Most of the time, the top person was the prime minister. The second principle was centralisation. The party was governed from New Delhi.
Several similarities exist between the way the two mainstream political parties are governed in Pakistan and the governance of India’s Congress party. Both the PPP and the PML-N are dominated by a single leader who commands total loyalty and runs a highly centralised organisation. As a result, both have left space for the regional parties to gain power in some parts of the country. However, in Pakistan, there is still space between national and regional parties that can be occupied by a relatively new national organisation. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has gained some traction as the citizens have lost some confidence in the established parties.
To the four principles mentioned by Pratap Mehta as the bases on which the Indian system was built, a fifth needs to be added, particularly on the economic side. The Indian system, to a large extent, is self-correcting. This is because for endurance, it must respond to the pressure by the citizenry for change. This affects both the economic and political components of the system. But the change comes after a lag; it took many years before the government stepped out of the way of the private sector. Nehru had placed the state on the commanding heights of the economy which produced the “Hindu rate of growth” for four decades. This experience taught the policymakers that excessive intervention by the state, as practised during the Nehru years, resulted in the economy growing at a rate much lower than its potential.
What does the Indian experience tell us about Pakistan’s likely political development and how it might affect our economy? I will take up this question next week.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 24th, 2012.