In this column I have, from time to time, discussed forecasts about India’s future made by political commentators. This time I want to place before you two forecasts made about our great neighbour to the north-west, Pakistan. These verdicts were offered forty years apart, albeit in the same American magazine.
In its issue of February 1959, The Atlantic Monthly carried an unsigned report on the state of Pakistan. General Ayub Khan had recently assumed power via a military coup. What was missing in Pakistan, wrote the correspondent, was ‘the politicians. They have been banished from public life and their very name is anathema. Even politics in the abstract has disappeared. People no longer seem interested in debating socialism versus free enterprise or Left versus Right. It is as if these controversies, like the forms of parliamentary democracy, were merely something that was inherited willy-nilly from the West and can now be dispensed with’.
Although the military regime had been in place less than a year, it had, thought the Atlantic reporter, done much good. He saw law and order returning to the countryside, and smugglers and black-marketeers being put in their place. ‘Already the underdog in Pakistan’ is gratetul to the army, he wrote, adding: ‘In a poor country… the success of any government is judged by the price of wheat and rice’, which, he claimed, had fallen since Ayub took over.
Foreign correspondents are not known to be bashful of generalization, even if these be based on a single, fleeting visit to a single, unrepresentative country. Our man at The Atlantic was no exception. From what he saw—or thought he saw—in Pakistan he offered this general lesson: ‘Many of the newly independent countries in Asia and Africa have tried to copy the British parliamentary system. The experiment has failed in the Sudan, Pakistan and Burma, while the system is under great stress in India and Ceylon. The Pakistan experiment [with military rule] will be watched in Asia and Africa with keen interest’.
Such was the conclusion: that Pakistan, and poor, ex-colonial countries in general, were better served by unelected officers in uniform than by elected politicians in mufti. Democracy was a Western import unsuited to the genius and culture of lands outside the West. What this assessment seemed to overlook is that Generals are, after all, trained for the prosecution of war. The Atlantic reporter claimed that ‘the peasants [in Pakistan] welcome the change in government because they want peace’. Well, in 1965, Field Marshal (as he now was) Ayub Khan brought them war with India. He retired shortly afterwards, not quite in disgrace but not with much honour either. Six years later the Generals who succeeded him fought another war with India.
The 1971 disaster—which combined military defeat with the break-up of the country—led to a restoration of democracy (of sorts) in Pakistan. Unfortunately, the long period of military rule had severely damaged representative institutions. It did not help that, as a centralizing populist, Z. A. Bhutto also undermined the judiciary and the civil service. In 1977 Bhutto was deposed by a military coup, whose leader, General Zia-ul-Haq, promised fresh elections in six months. He stayed in power for a decade, till his death in an aircrash prompted a return of elected government. This lasted another decade, before the politicians were once more banished by a General, the one who still holds power in Pakistan.
In its issue of September 1999, The Atlantic Monthly carried a report on Pakistan entitled ‘The Lawless Frontier’. This report, unlike the earlier one of 1959, was signed, by Robert D. Kaplan, who is something of a travelling specialist on ethnic warfare and the breakdown of nation-states. Kaplan presented a very negative portrayal of Pakistan, of its lawlessness, its ethnic conflicts (Sunni vs. Shia, Mohajir vs. Sindhi, Balochi vs. Punjabi, etc.), its economic disparities, and of the training of jehadis and the cult of Osama bin Laden.
Kaplan quoted a Pakistan intellectual who said: ‘We have never defined ourselves in our own right—only in relation to India. That is our tragedy’. The reporter himself thought that Pakistan ‘could be a Yugoslavia in the making, but with nuclear weapons’. Like Yugoslavia, Pakistan reflected an ‘accumulation of disorder and irrationality that was so striking’. Kaplan’s conclusion was that ‘both military and democratic governments in Pakistan have failed, even as India’s democracy has gone more than half a century without a coup’.
Kaplan doubtless had not read the very different prognosis of Pakistan (and of its military rulers) offered in his own magazine forty years previously. One must hope that his prediction of Pakistan’s disintegration is as far-fetched as the prophecy that Ayub Khan would bring peace and prosperity to that land. What remains striking are the very different assessments of this country, India. In 1959, The Atlantic pitied India for having a democracy when it might be better off as a military dictatorship. In 1999, The Atlantic thought this very democracy had been India’s saving grace.