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Explaining the Failure of Democracy in Pakistan

Christophe Jaffrelot’s ‘Pakistan Paradox’ spells out what led to the country’s first coup in the 1950s

by Khaled Ahmed

Over the decades, several interpretations have been given on the reasons behind the failure of democracy in Pakistan in the 1950s. Two are especially key: first, the legacy of the British Raj, whose rule saw a more authoritarian form of administration than the rest of the late Empire in parts of India that formed West Pakistan in 1947. Second, Pakistan’s fear of India from its inception, with this sense of vulnerability hampering political freedom.

In his 2015 book, Pakistan Paradox, author Christophe Jaffrelot explains that the first factor is situated at the intersection of the colonial legacy in its relationship to India, or what author Khalid bin Sayeed termed the vice-regal model of government. This model, he wrote, permeated the political culture, starting with the father of the nation, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, under whose brief command a pattern was established to concentrate power in the hands of a single man. Although a democrat, Jinnah justified his approach by the need to build a strong state practically from scratch to cope with the threat posed by India. But the priority given to state-building with a security-based orientation worked to the detriment of political parties perceived in opposition to national unity. As such, Pakistan’s early rulers weakened their own already fragile movement, the Muslim League.

Another factor is the combination of tensions between ethnic communities, social classes and interest groups, which hampered the implementation of a democratic regime. At Partition, the numbers favored Bengalis, while power was in the hands of Muhajirs. Power subsequently flowed to the Punjabis, whose “faction” that rose to power in 1953-4 represented much more than a group, including Pashtuns among its number. The “faction” also shared a socioeconomic bond being comprised of “bureaucrats” and members of the military embodying the urban economy. The division between the “Punjabis” and the “Bengalis” also had an international angle, with the former preferring to align itself with the U.S., from which they started receiving subsidies in the early 1950s, and from which they expected financial as well as military support.

Bureaucrats and feudals

Jaffrelot notes that while the military and “bureaucrats” seized power in the 1950s, civilians share a large part of the responsibility for democracy’s failure. They cultivated a factionalism in a system of political patronage that could only perpetuate social hierarchies. The agrarian elite feudal lords also played their role, forming factions devoid of any ideology, fueling political instability and opportunism that the military turned to its advantage. Most of the usurpers, including Iskander Mirza, Ayub Khan, and much later Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf, proceeded to consolidate their power.

A detailed study of 1947-58, he notes, requires detailed study because that was when Pakistan’s political class was formed, the functioning culture and sociology of which would evolve very little thereafter. Despite several attempts, including by Z.A. Bhutto, no one has since managed to break the pattern set in the 1950s to shift from the authoritarian, factionalist and client models. The main political parties continue to be influenced by traditional elites accustomed to nepotism, with any term in power reflecting this democratic deficit—and even a marked propensity for corruption. In addition to the centralizing tendency, these authoritarian leanings played their role in the country’s instability, with democratic forces facing recurrent sidelining. Pakistan, therefore, keeps oscillating between the suppression and (re)conquest of public liberties.

Pakistan as Dominion

Partition raised India and Pakistan to the status of Dominions. The Indian Independence Act of 1947 simply erased all reference to control by the British crown granted by the Government of India in 1935, becoming the basic law for both countries. India subsequently drew up its own Constitution in 1950, but Pakistan did not follow until 1956. India, also, maintained the practice of every other Dominion in the Commonwealth in appointing as governor general a figure that commanded respect but had no great political authority, while in Pakistan, Jinnah decided to assume this function himself despite Mountbatten’s reticence. Jinnah viewed this office as similar to the British governors general who bore the title of viceroy after 1858. Pakistan, thus, promoted the authoritarian and centralizing dimension of the elite, while India drew inspiration more from its parliamentary and federal features.

To reiterate, this did not mean Jinnah was against democracy. Prior to independence, he told a meeting of the Muslim League that Pakistan’s Constitution would be “a democratic type embodying the essential principles of Islam.” He elaborated on these plans in a speech broadcast in February 1948: “the Constitution of Pakistan has yet to be framed by the Pakistan Assembly. I do not know what the ultimate shape of this constitution is it but am sure that it will be of the democratic type, embodying the essentials of Islam. Today they are as applicable in actual life as they were in the beginning. Islam and its idealism have taught us democracy; It has taught equality of justice and fair-play to everybody.”

Jinnah as democrat

Despite his democratic leanings, however, Jinnah did not hold the parliamentary system of government in high esteem. In July 1947, he remarked a “presidential form of government” was more suitable for Pakistan, and always backed a strong personalization of power that much of the country still supports. In addition to being the governor general, Jinnah was also president of the Constitutional Assembly, an unprecedented concentration of power in the history of the British dominions. In this role, he directed debates among ministers that he himself had chosen. As Ian Talbot writes, “The central cabinet was more docile than the Working Committee of the AIML (All India Muslim League) had formerly been. Its members were not only hand-picked by the Quaid, but he chaired their meetings and was authorized to overrule their decisions.”

This concentration of power went hand in hand with strong centralization of the state. Both authoritarianism and centralism could no doubt be partly explained by the situation prevailing in the country at the time: the state was yet to be built on the basis of provincial administrations that had suddenly been deprived of a decision-making center. But Jinnah’s viceregal style put a lasting strain on democracy in Pakistan. His death on Sept. 11, 1948 might have provided an opportunity to alter the country’s political course, as its leading figure was now its prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, and a new governor general, Khawaja Nazimuddin.

Attraction to personal power

Nazimuddin readily acknowledged Liaquat Ali Khan’s authority, which he utilized to continue to centralize power. He had already, in July 1948, introduced a bill to amend Section 92A of the Government of India Act authorizing the federal government to dismiss a provincial government on the model of the prerogative given to the Viceroy of India by virtue of Section 93. Liaquat Ali Khan used it as early as Jan. 24, 1949 to dismiss the government of Punjab on the pretext of mismanagement, despite it enjoying a solid majority in the provincial assembly. For the next two year, the province was under the direct administration of central authorities. Like Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan also held different posts of responsibility simultaneously, taking over the leadership of the Muslim League in 1950—not to strengthen it, paradoxically, but to weaken it.

The weakness of the Muslim League and the party system in general then stood as a tremendous obstacle for the future of parliamentary democracy. While Pakistan had undoubtedly inherited a rich form of multilateralism that could have served as a basis for political pluralism—a condition for democracy—persistent centralization of power prevented the country from achieving this.

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