I said to a hall filled with Lahore’s liberal elite at the Pearl Continental, that one reason we were always struggling in our bilateral relations was that we were still governed by poorly evolved systems. So Pakistan, I said, was as imperfect a dictatorship as India was an imperfect democracy. Explanation: the Pakistanis had not quite denied their citizens all the freedoms that genuine dictatorships like North Korea, China, Iraq and Libya (then) did, or they would not have me, an Indian, saying rude things about their rulers to a full hall in Lahore. Similarly, I said, we in India had not yet quite succeeded in giving our people all the freedoms and rights that a classical, liberal democracy ought to. This, by the way, was also the year of the Gujarat riots. Both countries, I added, needed to move in opposite directions, we to make our democracy more perfect, and Pakistan, to make its dictatorship even more imperfect. Then, we might reach a middle ground where we, our establishments and peoples, find it easier to level with each other.
The Pakistanis responded to this rather warmly; the trouble I got into was entirely on our side: how dare you compare us with Pakistan, draw equivalence of any kind? The art of assassination on the Internet was still a little young, but it was a nasty new tryst with the virtual mob. A decade later, how does that theory stand the test of time?
Whether our democracy is less or more imperfect may be a contentious issue and we can debate that at some point later (though I’d argue it is more robust, liberal and merrily noisier than in 2002). But look at the stunning developments in Pakistan over the past weeks. An elected government, a weak one at that, is staring down the GHQ and the ISI. It has sacked a defence secretary for leaning towards the army, told the army chief and the corps commanders—that uniquely Pakistani equivalent of the Chinese Politburo or the Iranian Supreme Cultural Revolution Council—where to get off, and it is still in office. And this is a government run by a party fast losing political capital and run by utterly lightweight leaders.
A prime minister enormously more powerful and popular than the present lot, Benazir Bhutto, was fired by the then president, acting at the army’s behest, for a minor traffic offence in comparison: all she did was get carried away by the fall of the Berlin Wall and ask, in a speech she delivered at the Command and Staff College at Quetta, if the notion that armies guarded not merely the territorial but also the ideological frontiers of nations was not outdated. Anybody who knew anything about Pakistan knew that moment that she had written her dismissal order. No politician in Pakistan can ever question the very basis of the formulation that gives its army its pre-eminence in power and society. And if she does, she must go. In comparison to her minor traffic offence, her lightweight husband and his doddering government have run their car into the cavalry’s lead tank, and, to use the cavalryman’s favourite line on both sides, are bashing in regardless.
So, the question we dare to ask now is, have the Pakistanis, in this decade, managed to make their dictatorship much more imperfect? Let me also dare to argue that they have done so.
I will still not take bets on whether the army would resort to the familiar “off with your heads” approach. History would make that look inevitable. Pakistan, after all, is a country where people patiently wait for the next coup during interregnums of bonsai democracy, and where coups take place without a bullet fired, facing no resistance. But what if the brass blinks?
There is, in fact, a serious chance this time that they might. Much has changed in Pakistan and the world in general in the past decade that makes military coups of old so much more anachronistic. And it is not just the Arab Spring.
There is a democratic upsurge around the world. Even in the neighbourhood, Bangladesh’s emergence as a large oasis of democratic stability in the Muslim world, its army’s return to the barracks, the softening of the Burmese junta, are all signs that the days of brutal dictatorships are over.
Domestically, two of the three formidable “A’s” that supposedly controlled Pakistan’s destiny (Allah, Army and America) are in a different mood. The army has to deal with new threats on the west, watch an India leaving them rapidly behind on the east, and an America pulling the plug on their re-arming process, particularly if they fired their elected government again. It is a far cry from the times when America’s preferred option in Pakistan was a loyal general.
Finally, democratic thought, faith and respect for institutions have now matured around the world to a degree where it is becoming impossible for extra-constitutional power centres to push them around. We saw in India Anna’s heady prime-time hype begin to dissipate the moment his megaphones started arguing that in their version of democracy people spoke through mobs of the like-minded on the street than in a Parliament of dissent, disagreement and diversity of views.
There is a democratic spring setting in across the world. It is making India’s democracy less imperfect. And, hopefully, Pakistan’s dictatorship much more so.