India and Pakistan emerged at independence in 1947 with similar political systems: a British colonial state apparatus and elected assemblies as precursors to parliaments. Since then, India has functioned democratically, while Pakistan has found itself under direct or indirect military rule for most of its existence. Why did they take such different paths? The factors are many, with religion not the most influential. What’s more, Americans may be surprised to learn that Pakistan’s oft-renewed alliance with the U.S. has actually enhanced the power of the military vis-à-vis elected representatives. In India, meanwhile, even under Indira Gandhi’s rather autocratic Emergency rule, politicians have always had the upper hand and democracy has progressively expanded its base.
India does face serious problems of political unrest and corruption as well as tensions from a rapidly transforming socio-economic structure. But no one expects India to break up, to collapse under the weight of population growth or to succumb to the seductions of a single-party regime with a charismatic leader. Can this somewhat chaotic system survive until India reaches a level of development sufficient to guarantee the consolidation of democracy?
Despite a reasonably free and fair election in 2008, Pakistan’s civilian leaders still share power with a military deeply entrenched in the economy and committed to its role as the indispensable guardian of the nation. Pakistan’s economic and social problems are further compounded by ambivalence over Islam’s role in governance. Is Pakistan on the brink of becoming a “failed” state? Will Pakistan follow Turkey and Indonesia in recalibrating the balance of power between military and elected representatives to bring about real democratic rule? And bearing do these complexities have on the U.S. mission of democratizing the world?