Democracy in Pakistan

Imran Khan's ascension to Premiership in Pakistan could have been a great democratic moment: An elected government completed its term, only the second time in the country's history; the two dynastic parties, who took turns in government during the democratic intervals in-between Military rule ever since the 1970s, were defeated and replaced by a charismatic man with a track record of professional success and reputation of determination and commitment. In a society where the love of Cricket unites the all the diverse groups and classes, Imran is supposed to have a unique appeal; and, his charm, uniquely among all Pakistani politicians, extend to India.  

But it is not. Mr Khan is widely seen as a stooge of the Pakistani army, the election rigged in his favour by the Generals. In Pakistan and abroad, his elevation was seen to be illegitimate, and instead of a promise of peace, it is seen as a portentous moment of conflict. Rather than being a moment of celebration of the breaking of dynastic misrule that afflicted Pakistani democracy, this is seen as a setback of democracy, a return of the Generals to the front-line of politics. 

At a moment when the country is facing an unprecedented financial crisis, the lack of legitimacy would hurt. The rapidly transforming politics of Eurasia require cessation of conflict between India and Pakistan more urgently than ever, which doesn't seem likely. More importantly, Pakistani state itself, under pressure from uncertainty and misrule, is facing a serious security and stability challenges, which are unlikely to go away if the new regime is a throwback of the Eighties. The new premier, it seems, is set to become the new strongman of Asia, at the beck and call of his military masters.

However, my intent is not to attempt to predict the future, but to wade into a more fundamental conversation about democracy in Pakistan. Predictably, the conversations about the fragility of democracy have started again, in particular contrast with India. That the last two governments in Pakistan completed the full terms (though the Prime Ministers didn't, as they got ensnared in corruption scandals) and there were peaceful transfers of power, subdued various theories about impossibility of Pakistani democracy. Suddenly, there was a ray of hope, that the abatement of Cold War has lost Pakistani Military the leverage they once enjoyed: Anxious to keep their own economic advantages, they would now step back and let democratic leaders rule. However, with Mr Khan's election, we seem to be back to square one again, and pundits are reasserting again that Pakistan can't really be democratic.

This is where I want to offer an alternate explanation, and that is, Pakistan is an impossible country. It is a British Geo-political creation, like many others in the Middle East, which were viable only in the context of imperial designs for the region, but not by its own internal logic. A kinder version of this theory is that Pakistan is 'work in progress' (as are many other ex-colonial nations) and though Pakistan is very much a reality, Pakistanis are yet to be made. More practically, the geopolitical realities of the country, which, rather precariously, include a complete dependence on India for water, keeps it tied to the Anglo-American interests in Central Asia, and as that interest webs and flows, so does Pakistani democracy.

So, there is no point pretending that Pakistan is a normal country which, in course of time, will become democratic. As long as it remains too closely linked to global power-plays, it may never be. Ethnically diverse, and a late national creation, which is yet to move beyond its history of separation from India, Pakistan would forever be a state where Military plays an out-sized role, as the state itself exists for military reasons.

This doesn't mean there will be no change in Pakistani politics. The politics of the region Pakistan is much attached to, Central Asia, is rapidly changing, and becoming a sphere of geopolitical power-plays after a relative lull of 25 years: Pakistan's internal politics would reflect this change. The assertive military may now be less beholden to its American masters, as the Americans disengage and the Chinese engage deeply in the region. And, from that perspective, flexing a few muscles and taking over the civilian government by proxy may indeed be completely in order.

One final point: Where does that leave India? India can't really escape its hyphenated, joined in the hip relationship with Pakistan: They were twins, and India's politics closely reflects the ups and downs in Pakistan. However, escaping that cycle remains India's great strategic role, and an important factor in sustainability of Indian democracy. No democracies, regardless of militarist rhetoric, can sustain militarism and war for too long, as the costs of such adventures are disproportionately borne by poorer people. So a belligerent Pakistan would necessarily change India over the years, introducing, as it has done now, a more muscular politics in India in turn.


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