The world is going authoritarian

Pakistan shares its international borders with four countries. All of them are governed by authoritarian rulers

Shahid Javed Burki November 29, 2021
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the accompanying demise of European Communism, Francis Fukuyama, the American sociologist and political scientist, came to the conclusion that “history had ended”. For him, world history was a conflict among different ideologies. For more than a century, there were running battles between the European powers that had colonised large chunks of land in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and the native elites of the colonised areas. Colonists believed that they were bringing civilisation and modernity to backward lands they had under their control while the elites were convinced that the colonised land was their land and they had the full right to manage it. In managing it, they will keep in sight the aspirations of the people they would govern. The colonial powers mostly ignored the locals.

The Italians under Mussolini brought nationalism into governance while across the border Adolf Hitler introduced Nazism not only to his native Germany and but also to the rest of the world. It took the Second World War to defeat the Germans and the Italians and move the world towards systems of governance that was law-based and participatory at the national and international levels. This move was what Fukuyama saw as the “end of history”. The national systems would place individuals at the centre of the system who would be governed by laws he and she and fully participated in putting on the books. This system lasted for more than half a century but came under stress for a variety of reasons many of which were articulated in world’s different regions. The globe had been fractured in many parts. This brings me to a discussion of Pakistan and of how the country is being affected by its neighborhood.

Pakistan shares its international borders with four countries. All of them are governed by authoritarian rulers. That has been the case for decades. Two of those — Iran and Afghanistan — follow the Islamic faith in the way they govern their people. However, their different interpretations of the religion translate in different ways to define governance. Iran is a Shiite nation in which clerics well-versed in the Islamic sharia govern the country. The Taliban have reestablished the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan after having lived and fought the established order for two decades. They are engaged in the process of defining how such as a political entity would be managed.

For Pakistan, China is the third border state. President Xi Jinping who was elected president in 2013 on the assumption that he would serve for two terms as was done by his two predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, is set to get a third term when the Chinese Communist Party meets in the spring of 2022 for its five-yearly conclave. Earlier in 2021, the Party rewrote the document that details its history in which Xi was given the status equal to that of Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong.

The fourth neighbour, India, has gone — and is going — towards what it calls Hindutva, or authoritarianism based on the Hindu religion. Not having given up the old caste system, it has introduced religion into it. Hinduism occupies the top of the hierarchy while Islam with 200 million adherents is now placed on a much lower rung. Twice elected prime minister at the head of the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party — first time in 2014 and the second time five years later in 2019 — Narendra Modi now controls all levers of power in both the state as well as in the party apparatuses. Pakistan, in other words, is geographically placed in the centre of an authoritarian governing system with components of very different characteristics.

The four countries that are Pakistan’s neighbours are likely to evolve their authoritarian systems in different ways. As they go forward, they will face challenges from within as well as from the outside. Iran now has a well-educated middle class in which women with high levels of literacy have an increasingly important role to play. I developed this point in a 20-page chapter on Iran in my 2017 book, Rising Power and Global Governance. Former Iran Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati was impressed by the thesis I had developed about his country’s future. We met in Singapore and he invited me to launch the book in Tehran. I had to decline the invitation as it would have put me in an awkward position in the United States which was now my home. The Iranian women don’t want their lives to be governed by what they regard as archaic rules. The external challenges for Iran come from the Jewish state of Israel, from the Sunni government of Saudi Arabia and from the United States. All three would like to see the system dominated by the Shiite clerics to be dismantled and replaced by something they have made no attempt to define. There was a reaction to these external challenges and resulted in the election of Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner, as president, to replace more moderate Hassan Rouhnai who governed for eight years, from 2013 to 2021. The direction in which the country is likely to go will be defined to some extent by nuclear politics. Will Tehran be persuaded to join the nuclear talks that were begun a few months ago to revive in some form the nuclear accord negotiated by then President Barack Obama in 2015 but from which his maverick successor Donald Trump pulled out in 2017.

Pakistan will be most affected by the political and social shape systems still-being-formed in Afghanistan will take. The only comfort that Pakistan can draw is that some of those who are occupying senior positions in the government in Kabul have had close working relations with Pakistan’s military intelligence service. Prime Minister Imran Khan has a soft spot for the Talban — something that was revealed to me five years ago when I conveyed to him the invitation of then President Ashraf Ghani to visit him in Kabul.

There is not much to speculate about the future direction of China. As already indicated, the course for it has been clearly set for several years to come.

However, Pakistan should be very worried by the authoritarian direction in which India is moving and how that would affect the country’s 200 million Muslim population. For decades, India had earned the reputation of a highly fractured society that had found a way to create a nation out of diversity. It had created political and economic systems that provided space to all classes of people. Historian Sunil Khilnani had called that “the idea of India” in a book that appeared under that title. That idea is now dead as Hindutva is now being aggressively promoted even at the cost of worsening relations with Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country, the Indians had sent in their troops to create by pushing Pakistan out of what was the latter’s eastern province. Fifty years later while Bangladesh is under the rule of government that is very close to India, there are now Hindu-Muslim riots on both sides of the India-Bangladesh border. The pressure on the Indian Muslim population and the increasing restiveness of the Muslims in Kashmir could create another wave of migrants for Pakistan. The country can ill afford this at this time.


Published in The Express Tribune, November 29th, 2021.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.


Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ


Most Read