Some lessons from India

Published: March 18, 2012
The writer is a former vice-president of the World Bank and a former caretaker finance minister of Pakistan

The writer is a former vice-president of the World Bank and a former caretaker finance minister of Pakistan

Democracy is the glue that has kept India together in spite of its diversity. Pakistan followed a different trajectory for most of the timesince independence. It was the absence of democracy that eventually led to the break-up of the original Pakistan. It is democracy that will bring Pakistan out of its most difficult period since the 1971 civil war that resulted in the departure of East Pakistan. But is the evolution of the political system proceeding along the right course? It is instructive, in that context, to draw some lessons from the Indian experience by looking at how the neighbouring country is developing its democratic structure and the strains under which it has come in recent years.

State elections in the spring of 2012 delivered a blow to the government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and to the political ambitions of Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Elections were held in March in five states — Uttar Pradesh (UP), Punjab, Uttarkahnd, Manipur and Goa. The aspirant to the country’s premiership — the job held by his great grandfather, grandmother, and father —had campaigned hard in UP, India’s largest state with a population of 200 million. He had made the state election a test of his leadership. He failed mightily in the test with the Congress Party winning a mere 28 seats out of 403. This was only a handful more than that won in 2007. The Samajwadi Party, founded by Mulyama Singh Yadav, who was once the state’s chief minister, raced ahead of the other parties and won 224 seats. The governing Bahujan Samaj Party led by Mayawati, a low caste politician, took 80 seats, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) another 47 seats. Gandhi took full responsibility for the debacle suffered by his Congress party.

The UP results are significant for several different reasons for the development of the Indian political system. They confirm the regionalisation of politics in the country as power has been passed from one local party to another party with strong local roots. Some analysts have suggested that the localisation of politics may bring an end to India’s dynastic politics. The UPO elections may result in the slow death of Delhi’s dynasty. But new dynasties are being born in the states. The most successful politician in UP is Akhilesh Singh Yadav, the son of the leader of his party.

Why did the Congress do so poorly and what would be the likely consequences for this turn in the fortunes of the party? Let us take the second question first. The Indian political landscape is divided into two parts — the one dominated by two national parties and the other in which a number of regional parties have a significant presence. The Congress and the BJP, have sclerotic leadership. Also as shown by the recent local elections, they are poorly organised at the sub-national levels. The regional parties, on the other hand, have managed to reach all segments of the population they seek to represent. Since some of the regional parties are represented in the coalition that governs from New Delhi, they are pressing their economic and social agendas which are much narrower in scope than those the national parties would like to pursue. This has produced a dysfunctional political system that is holding the country back.

Politics, therefore, is the main reason why India has lost some of the dynamism of recent years. Growth in the last quarter of 2011 was the slowest in nearly three years. As the Financial Times wrote in an editorial, “comatose policymaking risks making it even slower. For the Indian economy to steam ahead as it should, it is essential that Delhi’s ability to govern the country is restored. But this is impossible given the growing influence of India’s regional parties, which can frustrate government action when this does not meet local demands.”

The Indian political system has become increasingly corrupt. Some Indian analysts trace this to the decision taken by prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1967 to outlaw corporate contributions. She did this to cripple a right wing opposition movement that had the support of big business. As Prem Shankar Jha wrote in the magazine Tehelka, the harm done by this move was “beyond measure”. Elections are expensive: a typical Indian constituency might have 1,000 villages and to reach them and provide food to the constituents, a common practice in South Asia, results in costs that are beyond the means of most politicians. This has resulted in the entry of the very rich into politics or an alliance between politicians and those who draw a significant proportion of their income and wealth from illegal pursuits. According to one observer of the Indian political scene, ‘criminals and wealthy politicians regularly dole out cash in return for votes. Criminals have other attractions for voters, who tend to favour strong men who can protect their interests in constituencies in which caste divisions are sharpest. Indeed, the breakdown of the criminal justice system means that an innocent person’s name can be easily tarnished by a politically motivated charge that might take decades to be resolved.’

Some data collected by the Association for Democratic Reforms, an advocacy group, show the extent of the penetration of crime into politics. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, of the 2,000 candidates from the main parties contesting, more than a third faced criminal charges. ‘Despite a nationwide campaign against corruption last year, the percentage of the candidates facing criminal charges has risen to 35 per cent from 28 per cent since state elections were held in 2007. At least 30 candidates were incarcerated.’

There are three important lessons Pakistan can draw from the Indian experience. What India has seen in terms of localisation of politics has also begun to happen in Pakistan. This will make economic decision-making even more difficult than now. However, dynastic politics will prove hard to replace in Pakistan as has been the case in India. Some of the corruption in the political system in Pakistan is the result of the state’s inability to provide for elections expenses and also to control them. There is a great deal to be careful about as Pakistan’s political evolution moves forward and follows the course India has taken.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 19th, 2012.

Correction: An earlier version of the article incorrectly named “Bahujan Samaj Party” as “Bahjan Janata Party”. The error has been rectified.

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Reader Comments (23)

  • Mar 18, 2012 - 11:45PM

    Pakistan was broken by the machinations of self-serving Pakistani politicians in 1971, not because of military rule.

    Pakistan should look to emulate the East and Southeast Asian political & economic model to develop into an educated urban middle class country where democracy can take root and succeed.

    In 1960s and 1970s, Korea was led by military ruler General Park Chung-Hee who put in place the policies which helped Koreans realize their great potential. President Park made huge investment in infrastructure, health and education. In addition, South Korean analyst Ha-Joon Chang says that the Korean government “practiced many policies that are now supposed to be bad for economic development: extensive use of selective industrial policy, combining protectionism with export subsidies; tough regulations on foreign direct investment; active, if not particularly extensive, use of state-owned enterprises; lax protection of patents and other intellectual property rights; heavy regulation of both domestic and international finance.”

    Pakistan, too, was ruled by a military dictator General Ayub Khan in a period labeled by Pakistani economist Dr. Ishrat Husain as “the Golden Sixties”. General Ayub Khan pushed central planning with a state-driven national industrial policy. In fact, South Korea sought to emulate Pakistan’s development strategy and copied Pakistan’s second “Five-Year Plan”.


  • Chacha
    Mar 19, 2012 - 12:38AM

    Two factors overlooked – First India has managed to very significantly reduce fuedalism although it is still active in some parts of Bihar in eastern UP but that is less than 5% of India. Second, a non-political defence force even though active in insurgency operations.

    The Obituary of the congress has been written for over 50 years. And they have always bounced back. India is generally a centrist country with letist leanings and no one has managed to occupy that space as well as the congress. Congress also has a very dynamic first and second level of leadership – below the gandhi dynasty. T

    he Narasimha Rao years was a boon as party elections were held for the first time which retired a lot of cronies – a ind of a cleansing took place. Rahul is now doing indirectly another cleansing. LIke it or not, but no name has the kind of mass appeal over the country similar to Gandhi – the mystique is genuine and real.


  • Chacha
    Mar 19, 2012 - 12:46AM

    A better view was enunciated in the media a year ago. The 2004-2009 govt of Manmohan singh had a thinner majority. And that performed really well as all partners new that rocking the boat was not an option as majority was so thin. Even the left, on whom the government depended, played ball.

    This time the majority has a good buffer so rocking the boat is viable without allowing the opposition to derail the government

    If one looks at the reformist credentials of regional parties, they are not bad. Gowda’s government was entirely dominated by regional parties (Janata Dal was very small)- but was the most reformist government ever outshining even Narasimha Roa and Manmohan singh’s first innings. Laloo completely changed Indian railways last time and made it profitable for the first time in decades.


  • Max
    Mar 19, 2012 - 12:54AM

    Burki Sahib,
    You are too simple and I like that. But when was the last time that Pakistan tried to learn something from India? Sir! Don’t you know they are emphasized textkafirs and there is a full time hate-mongering industry in Pakistan? If there is any industry that has thrived and prospered over a period of sixty-four years in Pakistan, it is hate-India industry.


  • Arindom
    Mar 19, 2012 - 12:56AM

    Rahul Gandhi lost because belying his age, his stand and speeches were moth eaten – from another era. He appealed to caste and religion. In a ridiculous speech he asked voters ( in a muslim region) to vote for him because his opponent has imported ultra-modern ‘Drip-Irrigation’ Technology from Israel to water his fields!!!


  • Falcon
    Mar 19, 2012 - 1:24AM

    Brilliant observations. Your analysis is consistent with prediction of Lee Kwan Yu that India’s diversity if not bound by an overriding national vision will be the single most debilitating factor capping its growth potential. We certainly need to learn the lesson and strengthen the political forces such as PTI that are at least trying to present a unified national narrative. Integration is the essence of strategy.


  • Anil Kapuria
    Mar 19, 2012 - 1:43AM

    I cannot comment on relevance of Indian political structure with Pakistani structure, because their evolution had been very different.

    India has political maturity, even in allowing criminals and dynastic heir apparent, has come before economic. This allowed disproportionate accumulation power and gave opportunity to massive corruption. Today, economic development does not reflect the distribution of power in India at the center among its regions. In a situation, where the center in India controls only 50% of the GDP, while other 50% is under state control. Center’s diktat, and rightly so, is limited.

    Revenue sharing formula, including freight equalization (that caused Bihar – source of resources to suffer) were set in 1956, and present problems in regional economic development, and in reforming. The changes to this imbalance is only possible through distribution of power to regions through matured democratic institutions, however corrupt and defective they may be. This change started in the south and the Bengal in 1960s, and is now happening in the north, especially in unmanageable and development starved U.P.

    Dynamics for Congress have changed as only coalitions of regional powers can rule at the center. In the absence of any right of center party, BJP, a la Modi touting economic development, captures its votes from those who would otherwise vote for a right of center party without religious bent.

    Next stage of both political and economic developments in India are at micro level, as that is where remaining 50% of the GDP is controlled. It is refreshing to see young coming in, even through heir apparent. They would either consolidate power through criminals, they are the most efficient gatherer of power at grass roots, or change it. America to fought its Mafia and before it broke up unwieldy enterprises. Today’s India has the both.


  • Sajida
    Mar 19, 2012 - 3:14AM

    Indira Gandhi outlawed corporate contributions in 1967? Smart woman. Corporate and elite contribution are ruining American democracy. However, the bigger issue is you need funding for politics. This funding has to be provided somehow.
    Neither India nor the US have been able to do this in such a way as to prevent corrupting of the system one way or another.For sustainable democracy this is essential.Once in US past there was a reform movement that reduced corruption and allowed for stabilization of the country. Its subsequent development was based on that foundation. Now today when its safeguards have been bypassed or reduced or removed; US needs to another reform movement to cure its current ills.
    India has a reform movement;but it is mired in a battle with Government and also offers a limited blunt tool-the Ombudsman.
    @Arindom It is shocking that Rahul used drip irrigation technology as a political ruse. That tool is one sorely need in all of India and beyond! While I do not like BJP’s communal politics, this was a smart thing-but, not for just one area. Indian farmers are suicidally using tubewells as are Pakistanis and other Asian framers!


  • Always Learning
    Mar 19, 2012 - 4:36AM

    Along with some excellent op-ed pieces, we get this regurgitated tripe. Does ET exercise discretion in what gets published (check quality and relevance) or do regular columnists have the license to fill space disregarding relevance and importance? To remain an excellent newspaper, please be a tad more discerning.


  • Sajida
    Mar 19, 2012 - 6:26AM

    Pakistani keep in mind:
    The big why
    Nations fail because their leaders are greedy, selfish and ignorant of history


  • Rakib
    Mar 19, 2012 - 9:42AM


    In Indian politics especially during campaign times things are not always as they are reported in press. TV may be better. Rajiv’s criticism was not of “drip-irrigation” technology as such but of BJP’s consistent slogan to make “Bundelkhand in to Israel” presumably by that technology. BJP’s wrong choice of simile in a Muslim area was an opportunity. Rajiv gave a spin to that slogan by shouting out rhetorical questions to his audience,”do you really want Bundelkhand to be another Israel?” Such instances are not unusual in Indian electoral politics.What matters far more is his Govt’s relation with Israel.


  • vasan
    Mar 19, 2012 - 10:55AM

    I think one important point missed out in the article and the comments is the difference when it comes to state elections like the recent elections in UP, Goa etc and the election to the central govt. Indians have simultaneously voted for diff parties in the two elections when held together. So conclusions may not be right if drawn on state elections alone.


  • Yuri Kondratyuk
    Mar 19, 2012 - 11:15AM

    @Shahid Javed Burki,

    Democracy is not an all healing magic wand, it’s the culture of the majority of Indian society that helped it’s survival through the tough times.


  • Paras Vikmani
    Mar 19, 2012 - 2:03PM

    It is Bahujan Samaj Party not Bahjan Janata Party.


  • Mar 19, 2012 - 2:13PM

    As long as the Country is open to evolve, I’ve no problem. Evolution of systems take time. Sometimes they evolve in a negative manner. As long as the process continues and is not abandoned, this process will fix it self.

    Interesting article.


  • complexity of democracy
    Mar 19, 2012 - 4:12PM

    The article seems too simplistic. Indian elections are a complex phenomena, and with the voters now being dominated by younger people, the delivery or its promise of governance is most critical, both at the state and national level. At the same time, the electrorate is smart enough to vote very differently for the state and national elections. Even today 60% of the seats at the national level are with the two main parties. They also control 70% of the state governments either with allies or directly.
    What is evolving is that the economic agenda and good governance is being demanded by people. If a political party cant deliver, it gets kicked out. And if it does, it is voted in.In many cases, even if the economic delivery is good, but the party seems corrupt, they lose.
    So lessons for pakistan are that, governance and economic growth are what will get votes in future.
    as Clinton sai, “its the economy, stupid”!!


  • Agnivesh
    Mar 19, 2012 - 5:08PM

    The writer is correct in his reading of the Indian political scene. India will suffer from a fractured political institution and governance would be severely handicapped.


  • Suresh
    Mar 19, 2012 - 8:22PM

    Javed sab missed one important point in UP election connected with regionalism. The outgoing CM of the state Ms.Mayavathi had proposed division of UP into 5 smaller state.Her game plan was, the opposition to her proposal by her opponents particularly the SP, will help her garner the votes of people from these emerging states. She knew about her waning popularity and gambled on this devious ploy. But, the UP voters rejected it and elected SP and for unity of the state.

    When the country is not in any crisis ( economic or warlike situation), and there is a steady growth, voters may choose the regional party over the nationalist, to bring development that suits them most.


  • abhi
    Mar 19, 2012 - 10:19PM

    Take whatever lessons you want to take or not take, but having so simplistic view is not very helpful when you want to make some long term plans.Recommend

  • G. Din
    Mar 20, 2012 - 2:26AM

    Can any Islamic country ever become democratic? I do not believe so! Democracy is basically about pluralism which Islam abhors even when Islam rules. Didn’t Pakistan come into being because of Muslim allergy to “one man-one vote”.


  • Babloo
    Mar 20, 2012 - 4:13AM

    The question to ask is, in Islamic states, are non-Muslims full, equal citizens of state, with inherent, equal rights or do they only enjoy as much rights as the majority community grants them out of kindness ? The answer to that would determine if Islamic states can be democratic.


  • abhi
    Mar 20, 2012 - 1:07PM

    what is the point of your question. if every one has same right than how the state will be islamic state?


  • Naresh
    Mar 20, 2012 - 8:17PM

    @Riaz Haq:
    Mr. Haq please advise which Industries and their Annual Production of Pakistan did South Korea emulate in Pakistan’s “Golden Sixties”.
    Also please give reference to Independent or even Governmental Links to the information requested as you are referring to your own postings.


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