And why it’s absurd to ignore the pachyderm in the tent
It is not hard to see why there is an enormous amount of pablum in the Western circles when it comes to figuring out what to do about the mess that is Pakistan. [See recent posts by Dhruva Jaishankar & Rohan Joshi fisking one such case]. One part is that mindsets are not keeping pace with geopolitical realities. The second part is that the reality itself is so terrible that it is far easier to avoid confronting it. This situation is possible and inexpensively maintained when you are a few thousand miles away from the reach of Pakistan’s ballistic missiles.
Take Christophe Jaffrelot’s review essay in Foreign Affairs on why India is a democracy and Pakistan is not. It is a commentary on Philip K Oldenburg’s “India, Pakistan and Democracy – Solving the puzzle of divergent paths”. Both book and review devote themselves to debunking the “reductionist and not particularly productive approach” of attributing these difference to religion. To author and reviewer, it is almost an article of faith—ironically—that Pakistan’s being on intensive care and India’s longstanding democracy and recent development have nothing to do with the former being beholden to Islam and the latter driven by its Hindu civilisational ethos. So they spend a lot of time, energy and ink splitting hairs and teasing out minor variables that might have instead contributed to these starkly different outcomes.
Even the two examples Mr Jaffrelot cites to argue religion is secondary in explaining political trajectories—Indonesian democracy and Sri Lanka’s ‘march to dictatorship’—are weak. He ignores the fact that Indonesian Islam is constructed on a still palpable (but fast declining) bedrock of Hindu-Buddhist civilisational values. As for Sri Lanka, he ignores the possibility that his presumptuousness might receive a slap at the hustings of the next election. But what about Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Sudan, Egypt, Libya and so on? To reject the notion that states that organise themselves around Islam have serious problems may be politically correct, but is certainly empirically wrong. [See Deepak Lal's argument on the issue of "settled rule"]
It is not a coincidence that India is the only robust democracy in Asia. Both Mr Oldenburg and Mr Jaffrelot confuse Hinduism as a narrow denomination of faith, and Hinduism as a source of values that underpin Indian civilisation. You don’t need to be a Hindu nationalist to realise that the pluralism, tolerance, moderation and secularism that underpin Indian civilisation and are consistent across its many denominational faiths are the very same values that sustain its democracy. [See "Who says nationalism must be intolerant?"]
It is a good thing to examine the second- and lower-order variables that might affect political trajectories. But it is intellectually unsound to ignore the obvious. Worse, it leads to hideously grotesque policy recommendations. Mr Jaffrelot writes:
To overcome (Pakistan remaining in a limbo between dictatorship and democracy-Ed), the relationship between India and Pakistan — not just the comparison between them — must be addressed. [Foreign Affairs]
This argument, to put it mildly, is bunkum. It doesn’t explain, for instance, why the Pakistani government can’t collect taxes and electricity bills from its elite. It doesn’t explain, for instance, why Salmaan Taseer’s assassin is celebrated as a national hero. The mess that is Pakistan is the creation of the Pakistani people. Pakistan can’t be fixed by changing its ‘relationship’ with India any more than North Korea can be transformed by tweaking US-South Korea relations.
India, a growing economic power, resents being grouped with a quasi-failed state. Indian leaders were quite happy, for example, when U.S. President Barack Obama visited India but not Pakistan during his last Asian tour. But decoupling is not only bad for U.S.-Pakistani relations — Pakistan longs to be recognized as on par with India and could be easier to work with if it is, even if only symbolically — it is not really in India’s interest, either. China, India’s real rival, could take advantage of a Pakistan alienated from the West. [FA]
This is theoretically a good argument. It would have merited attention had it been made in 1950. However, given that the China-Pakistan alliance is more than five decades old and continues to be robust, it is unclear what more India has to fear from that front. On the contrary, a Pakistan alienated from the West—like North Korea—might actually be strategically less useful to China.
And if Pakistan falls apart, democracy in India might be affected as well. Already, routinized terrorist violence has taken its toll on Indian civil liberties. And communal harmony in India, which has always been tenuous, has become increasingly strained thanks to terrorist attacks and the BJP’s Hindu nationalist policies.[FA]
This is precisely the kind of conclusion you’ll arrive at if you ignore the obvious and focus on lower-order variables. Mr Jaffrelot fails to mention how democracy in India will be affected if–and that is a big if—Pakistan falls apart. Nothing bad happened to the United States and Western Europe after the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc collapsed. In fact, it can just easily be argued that Indian democracy will be stronger if the security threats from Pakistan diminish. Mr Jaffrelot’s comment on communal harmony might have been taken as merely gratuitous if he had not left out the adjective describing “terrorist attacks”. As for BJP’s ‘Hindu nationalist policies’, we might be able to assess their their impact on communal harmony once they occur, because right now, there is scarcely one policy that can be described as ‘Hindu nationalist’. What are ‘Hindu nationalist policies’ anyway?
If there is a reason why communal harmony is threatened, it is because of entitlements and identity politics that breeds competitive intolerance. We do have plenty of those policies.
The best way forward will be for both countries, with the support of the international community, to launch a new round of dialogue. Without such attention to Indian-Pakistani relations, India’s democracy will not prosper and Pakistan’s generals will never unclench their fists.[FA]
People who make such recommendations should be forced to put their money where their mouth is. Perhaps a charge of $1000 every time they repeat this formula will sufficiently deter analysts from offering the same, ineffective prescription. Double that if they prescribe it when “dialogue” is not only in progress but the stated policy of the Indian government. This might help reduce India’s fiscal deficit.
Neither Indian democracy nor India’s development is contingent on Pakistan, its generals and their fists. It is pointless talking to Pakistan. It would make more sense talking to the powers that pay to keep Pakistan in intensive care. Unlike Mr Oldenburg & Mr Jaffrelot, we do not have the luxury of pretending that what makes us feel good is actually what is real.