The Promise of Power: The Origins of Democracy in India and Autocracy in Pakistan. By Maya Tudor. Cambridge University Press, 2013. 240 pp.
Six and a half decades ago, on 14 and 15 August 1947, Pakistan and India emerged as sovereign states from what had been Britain’s Indian Empire. Within three years of independence, India had drafted a liberal-democratic constitution. Two years after that, it held its first free and fair elections, based on a universal adult franchise.
Pakistan needed nine years to produce its first constitution, and its initial experience with democracy was cut short almost before it had a chance to begin: A 1958 military coup led by General Mohammad Ayub Khan swept aside civilian rule in a pattern that would dominate Pakistan’s history. When Ayub Khan stepped down in 1969, he handed power to another military dictator, General Yahya Khan. Since the second Khan left office in 1971, Pakistan has seen additional stretches of military rule under generals Mohammad Zia ul-Haq (1978–88) and Pervez Musharraf (1999–2008).
The pathways of the two states could not have been more different. Except for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s 1975–77 “state of emergency” and suspension of key rights and liberties, India’s democracy, though hardly without flaws, has endured and indeed deepened. Pakistan, meanwhile, has lived under the shadow of the coup.
What explains the divergent paths of these two states? Why did democracy fail to find fertile ground in Pakistan but flourish in India [End Page 168] even though both states had emerged from the same colonial experience? The questions are significant because democracy took root in India under the most adverse circumstances. Shortly after independence and partition, literacy was just under 17 percent (according to the 1951 census), most people lived in grinding poverty, and social and ethnic cleavages were deep and widespread.
India’s experience belies the long-held notion that democracy requires the presence of a preponderant middle class. Pakistan has defied conventional wisdom in a less happy way: Despite enjoying robust economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s, the country failed to make a successful transition to democracy. Even when civilian and democratic regimes managed to take office, their tenures proved short.
As a nascent state, India faced rafts of problems. Yet the Indian National Congress, the party that had spearheaded the Indian independence movement, managed to foster institutions and practices that were and are soundly democratic—not least among them solid civilian control over the military. By contrast, the principal nationalist party in Pakistan, the Muslim League, proved woefully unequal to such tasks. Matters became even worse when West and East Pakistan fell into a civil war and (following India’s intervention) broke up to form the separate states of Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1971.
Even though the experiences of India and Pakistan stand out as glaring anomalies in the literature on democratic transitions, few scholars working with primary sources have explored how their paths managed to fork so dramatically. Maya Tudor is one of these scholars. After explaining the insufficiency of accounts that cite differing colonial inheritances, international influences, ethnic cleavages, and the possible link between Islam and political authoritarianism, she makes her own straightforward case. The key to grasping why India and Pakistan are so different politically, she claims, is to be found in the structures, organizations, and ideologies of the two political parties that dominated the respective nationalist movements. Her explanation, though not wholly novel, is nevertheless cogently stated, backed by original research, and superbly argued.
Some may quibble that she is covering familiar ground, but she carefully uses new evidence to show in exquisite detail how the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League emerged and evolved.
Congress began in 1885 as a moderate, mostly upper-class organization with the limited goal of lobbying for representative government. Its outlook was always liberal. By the early twentieth century, it was steadily expanding its political horizons and seeking to extend its reach into rural India. Tudor fairly credits Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948) for his extraordinary role in mobilizing India’s poor and dispossessed, even as she notes that his hopes for a more equal social order dovetailed with Congress’s preexisting interest in using democratic reforms to promote social mobility. [End Page 169]
She also shows that Congress’s embrace of nonviolent civil disobedience deepened the democracy-friendly ideational commitments of Indian nationalism. The three major campaigns that the party launched during the years of pressing for independence highlighted various India-wide social and economic grievances. The second and most famous of these campaigns was the Salt March that Gandhi led in 1930. This movement—a simple, peaceful, and direct protest against Britain’s unfair taxes and monopoly control of a staple item—was one that all Indians, including the poor and unlettered majority, could understand and join.
As Congress strove to represent diverse segments of Indian society, habits of intraparty discussion, debate, and compromise formed. These became steadily firmer as Congress internalized the ethos of parliamentary democracy. With independence came many contentious issues, but Congress had the deeply embedded deliberative resources to take them in stride and reach accommodations. Its democratic ethos shaped Indian politics.
The Muslim League came into being in 1906 as a party seeking to protect the interests of a religious minority that feared the deep sociopolitical changes it saw taking place around it. Muslim aristocrats worried that even Congress’s limited representative-government agenda would threaten their privileges. To guard these, they asked colonial authorities for disproportionate representation. The League scored its first win along these lines with the creation of separate Muslim and non-Muslim electorates in 1909. This move helped to undermine the development of a unified Indian nationalism even as it promoted a primordial nationalism based on religious identity.
The League ostensibly sought to stand for the interests of all Indian Muslims. Yet its heavily upper-class membership and close ties to landowners in the United Provinces (today’s Uttar Pradesh) put limits on just how representative it could be. An urge to hold onto colonial-era privileges fostered resistance to democratic reforms. Commitment to existing class interests would dog the League throughout the anticolonial struggle, and then sandbag its efforts to reconcile diverse class, regional, and sectarian interests in the new state of Pakistan.
The hostility of the League’s core members to any form of power sharing crippled its ability to develop a nationwide mass following such as Congress enjoyed. Only during the Second World War, when Congress members resigned their offices en masse in order to protest [End Page 170] Britain’s decision to commit India to the war effort without consulting any elected representatives, did the League broaden its base. It did so, however, as Tudor shows, through insincere and rank populist tactics. It highlighted Congress’s failure to prevent Hindu-Muslim discord in order to argue that in a post-British India, Muslims would be at the mercy of a Hindu-run government dominated by Congress. The League also made allies of local Muslim parties in Bengal and the Punjab, promising to boost the interests of all Muslims.
As Tudor demonstrates, the strong interest that League leaders took in preserving their class privileges led to their failure to develop a postindependence agenda. This failure to draw up blueprints for governance after Britain partitioned its former South Asian holdings and pulled out has proven disastrous for two-thirds of a century now. In 1947, the Muslim League got a state but had few, if any, ideas about how to govern it. Worse still, the League’s neglect of the arts of debate and compromise led to an intolerance of dissent and a refusal to make concessions. Given this ethos of rigidity, the deadlock that so quickly seized the constitution-making process seems no surprise at all.
As good as Tudor’s book is, there are two ways in which it could have been even better. First, her compelling and parsimonious analysis would have benefited from a longer treatment of the two parties’ initial ideational commitments. Despite Congress’s initial upper-class composition, it took liberal-democratic ideals to heart at the outset and never looked back. The League embraced no such principles, and indeed—as Tudor correctly stresses—harbored a profoundly antidemocratic outlook.
Second, while Tudor is right to insist that the League’s criticisms of Congress on intercommunal-relations issues were instrumental rather than principled, she could acknowledge more frankly that (whatever its motives) the League had a point: Congress did indeed falter in its commitment to secularism. The reason for this faltering was Congress’s desire to placate local Hindu notables whose support at election time remained vital in certain locales. Congress let this concern carry it away until reassuring India’s increasingly fretful Muslim minority about its postindependence security became nearly impossible.
Even allowing for these criticisms, this brief and adroitly written book will stand as vital reading for anyone who wants to understand India and Pakistan. Tudor has filled a crucial gap in their story. Her account will remain foundational for future studies of how these two important countries—born with twinlike simultaneity from the same colonial womb—have nonetheless turned out so differently over the two-thirds of a century since they began political lives of their own. [End Page 171]