Separated at birth
A.J. Philip

Divided by Democracy
by Meghnad Desai and Aitzaz Ahsan.
Roli Books. Pages 144. Rs 295.

Divided by DemocracyTHE India-Pakistan peace process has spewed a lot of cross-border brouhaha. This is the second volume under the Cross-border Talks series published simultaneously in India and Pakistan.

The writers – Meghnad Desai and Aitzaz Ahsan – have impeccable credentials. Desai is an Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and an active member of the British Labour Party. Ahsan is a leading advocate of Pakistan, who has been incarcerated many times by military and authoritarian regimes and has served as a minister in the federal government.

Their grand thesis is that while democracy is endemic to India, Pakistan has a military tradition it simply cannot shake off. In what can be described as extended essays, the authors conclude that while India’s democracy will continue to be strengthened, Pakistan, too, will eventually go the democratic way.

Desai concludes that the path-breaking decision that anchored democracy in India is the adoption of universal adult suffrage by the Constituent Assembly in 1950. Why did India choose the Westminster model, in preference to the Russian and American models? He himself answers that the university movement in India spawned a large mass of educated people, who saw in the British parliament a model to emulate.

The rise of the Indian National Congress provided the admirers of democracy a forum where its members could practices debate as was done in the British parliament. Every session of the Congress, be it at the provincial or the national level, was a learning experience for the people.

However, Desai does not go beyond the obvious to answer when exactly the British parliament became a model worth emulating. It was at best a "gentleman’s club primarily concerned with the private interest of its members". It was the evangelicals led by William Wilberforce, nicknamed "God’s own politician" who regarded parliament as the "moral mint of the nation in which moral and political principles receive their stamp and currency", who transformed parliament as a forum of debate, dissent and reconciliation. It was during their tenures that India’s reform and democratisation got a start.

Desai is so impressed by India’s democratic credentials that he is even prepared to suggest a solution that can put the nation on the superhighway of economic growth – let the Congress and the BJP come together to form a government. Most people would only laugh it off.

Be that as it may, when Pakistan is only a "slice" of India, why is it that democracy is almost alien to the nation? Ahsan is known in academic circles for his astounding theory enunciated in a recent book that there have always been differences between the cultures of the Indus region (which is now incorporated into Pakistan) and the region now known as India.

Ahsan does not find anything amiss in the military calling the shots in Pakistan. Unlike India, Pakistan did not have the leadership of a statesman like Nehru, a great democrat, during its formative years.

At Partition, India had a strong middle class and political structure and a subordinated civil and military bureaucracy. Instead, Pakistan inherited a strong feudal class, an insignificant bourgeoisie and an entrenched civil and military bureaucracy, which has never relinquished power.

He traces the problem to the British, who found in the Punjab fertile recruiting grounds for the Army. Hardy men from the region fought for the British in distant lands. In return, they bestowed on the region benefits like better roads and irrigation systems. Alas, democracy was not one of them.

Little surprise, in Pakistan, the most talented aspires to join the army. After all, that is the surest way to power. For the army, too, power is an obsession. When General Pervez Musharraf was removed from his army job by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief, it took just 15 minutes for the army to take positions at all vital installations in Islamabad but when a multi-storied building crashed in the same city in the recent earthquake, the army took several hours to reach there.

It is a different matter that ultimately the Pakistan army had to wait for the British rescuers to save those trapped under the debris of the building. And in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir the army was busy rebuilding the damaged bunkers, when it should have been bringing succour to the victims.

Ahsan is not a pessimist. He finds hope in the powerful civil liberty movement in his country that has boldly resisted military regimes. As a result, even dictators can only put off full suffrage elections, and not end them. Therein lies hope that one day a sequel to this volume will be brought out under the title "United by Democracy". Until then, the Cross-Border Talks series is a reminder that India and Pakistan are distant neighbours.