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June 21st, 2017

“At critical moments in history the balance of power favoured non-democratic forces in Pakistan, while favouring democratic forces in India” – Philip K Oldenburg


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes


June 21st, 2017

“At critical moments in history the balance of power favoured non-democratic forces in Pakistan, while favouring democratic forces in India” – Philip K Oldenburg


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Ahead of the LSE Pakistan Summit 2017, Philip K Oldenburg spoke at an alumni event at the British Council in Karachi on ‘Pakistan’s loyal opposition’. After the talk, Sonali Campion asked him about India and Pakistan’s divergent trajectories, and discussed the notion of the ‘semi-loyal opposition’ as a threat to democracies everywhere.

Your most recent book looks at India and Pakistan in comparative perspective. Could you outline your arguments about why their political trajectories diverged?

The best tool we have for understanding this is to look at the balance of power of the elected representatives and popular leaders, versus the state apparatus of the bureaucracy and the military. Let me just give you one example: at the moment of independence in India, the bureaucracy had suffered from 25 years of being labelled by Gandhi as traitors, because they did not quit in 1920 as he asked them to. He said “you have to choose between serving the nation and serving the British. We’re not going to do anything to you but this is the choice”. For 25 years these people loyally served the British and suppressed the nationalist movement to the best of their ability and so forth.

When they arrive at independence they suddenly have to change from being masters into servants of the same politicians that they had put in jail with glee – if you read their memoirs you discover that they really thought very poorly of the Congress leaders. So the elected leadership had a huge lever over the bureaucracy, which could not do the things they wanted to do. It was similar with the military.

In Pakistan on the other hand, the bureaucracy was the partner of the Muslim League in liberating Pakistan. They come in late, but its no accident that the major figures in the dismantling of Pakistan’s new democracy in the immediate post-1947 period are a set of bureaucrats. So you’ve got a situation right from the beginning – and the military in Pakistan is a bit more complicated but they create an alliance with the civil service – against a divided democratic leadership. So the balance of power right at the beginning between the politicians and bureaucracy is equal.

Another point I make in the book is that the Congress Party under Gandhi from 1920 developed into a mass organisation, something which didn’t happen to the Muslim League until 1946. At the moment of independence the Congress had been building a mass movement for 25 years, there was leadership development at the local level, a whole series of things were done to bring a lot of people committed to democratic values into positions of leadership.

Pakistan didn’t have the benefit of this experience. Even worse for Pakistan, the leadership of the Muslim League, which won liberation for Pakistan as a separate entity, was largely from the minority provinces of united India. When these elites arrive in Pakistan (and many did, particularly from UP which had a huge cadre of government officials, politicians and so forth) they realise that their followers are back in India and they literally can’t even speak the language of their new constituents so they plunge. This is highlighted in the provincial elections in the 1950s when the constituent assembly had to be re-elected. The elections were not valid because the people who took power were those who came mainly from India and didn’t have a local support base. In addition many of them were bureaucrats, so they augmented the power of the bureaucracy in the balance of power. Now this is not my point, it is one Mohammed Waseem made, but it’s an important part of the story.

Image: Jinnah addresses the delegates to the Moslem Political Convention held in New Delhi in 1943. Credit British Library BL Photo 429/(8) Public Domain.

I trace this in the book through a whole series of cases in which I suggest that at critical moments the balance of power favoured the non-democratic forces in Pakistan, while favouring the democratic forces in India. For example, there’s one crucial moment in 1976 it would be fair to say that Pakistan was more democratic than India, because Mrs Gandhi had declared a state of emergency which amounted to quasi authoritarian rule. However, in 1977 both countries have an election, Mrs Gandhi gets tossed out, in part because the conventions of a free and fair election have been established in India. In Pakistan, although Bhutto wins, he wins with an overwhelming majority which was too large to be credible. It’s likely that he would have won but not by that margin. So that is a critical moment which highlights the differing balances of power in the two countries.

When we send probes to the outer planets they are shot around the sun or around other planets to create a slingshot effect to get them out into the far reaches of the solar system. India had a close encounter with the planet of autocracy but it swung into the larger orbit of democracy because of the reaction to Mrs Gandhi’s rule. The 1977 elections really transformed Indian politics in all kinds of ways, particularly in terms of inclusiveness. On the other hand, Pakistan never really escapes the orbit of autocracy because of the election rigging and so on. Its path is elliptical – it comes closer to democracy then moves away again. This is a serious problem for Pakistan which remains today.

So to tie this in with the talk that you gave here in Karachi, could you explain the concept of the loyal opposition?

Strictly speaking the loyal opposition is the political party not in government that nonetheless believes in the system, and is in fact making the system work. They question the policies or character of the party in power and they might even say nasty things about the ruling party but they won’t question their right to be in power. That is the definition.

I add that for a loyal opposition system to exist, both sides have to accept the validity of the opposition. A loyal opposition has to be seen as something that’s desirable. Many parties in power would love to have the opposition go away, or shut up at least, but if they’re smart they recognise it’s a necessary part of the way the system works.

If they don’t exist you have to invent them. Arguably in India, Nehru invented the opposition. He recognised this need and he did things which still exist today. For example, he established the convention that the chair of the select committees in parliament would be a member of the opposition. There was no serious opposition to Nehru but he recognised it was needed. I argued today that in Jinnah’s case he did not recognise that the opposition had legitimacy. He saw them as enemies of Pakistan. That might have been a result of his conception of democracy, or because in order to win Pakistan he had had to pretend that it was of a certain character, which meant anyone who conceptualised it differently was a traitor.

Either way, if you frame the opposition as an enemy you are really delegitimising the system. It is crucially important for the consolidation of democracy to accept party competition, where all players are recognised as legitimate.

You talked about 2007 as a key moment for the creation of a loyal opposition. Can you explain why that moment was so key and how it has played out?

In 2007 a Charter of Democracy was signed. I am curious about what was in the minds of Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, or others that were involved, how did they do this? Perhaps there has been research into this I haven’t seen but it seems to me critically important. Either way, somehow they decided that if we do not come to some sort of agreement of this kind, the military would continue to play them back and forth as they had done in the earlier period.

One of the things that is going on in 2007 is that India is seen as being on an upward trajectory, and people were saying if Pakistan doesn’t strike some kind of deal it is going to be left in the dust.  Either way there has been some success because the country has moved towards a loyal opposition framework and Pakistan is doing much better in many ways.

The passage of the 18th Amendment is another terribly important milestone which has been talked about a little bit. But if you look at the accounts of what’s happened in Pakistan in the last 10 years, who talks about the 18th Amendment? They don’t.

We will be as part of this Summit! But you’re right, it isn’t getting much discussion. Finally, to take a more global perspective, how well do you see the loyal opposition holding up elsewhere in the face of rising populism? You could argue a disloyal opposition won in the American election because Trump’s campaign challenged the system.

Disloyal is a bit strong, semi-loyal is a better category for America. But it’s a continuing struggle. There are other challenges at play here, in the US as well you have people who feel that moral law, God’s law, should take precedence over the law that we generate out of the legislative process and political competition and so forth. They see this as a higher law, on which voting decisions should be made. That has been a continuing sub-stratum in American politics, and politics everywhere I’m sure.

The important point that Juan Linz made is that it’s the semi-loyal opposition that are the real danger to democracy. These are the people who make excuses for those who reject democratic ideas, those that say ‘this election I’ll vote with them, or adopt their ideas’. I think this was what began to happen in this last American election . Looking at empirical cases, for example Weimar Germany or parts of Latin America in the 1950s and 60s, that is what causes the breakdown of democracy.

So semi-loyal groups are the ones you want to pay attention to. In the article that I’ve written recently I look at those who make excuses for the Jihadists – ‘they’re going too far but…’ – in Linz’s argument those people are as significant a danger as those who explicitly say ‘democracy’s a lousy system’. I think that is a very important insight that we’ve not paid enough attention to.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

About the Author

Philip Oldenburg, has taught political science at Columbia since 1977, where he has also served as Director and Associate Director of the Southern Asian Institute. His published scholarly work focuses mainly on Indian politics, particularly local government and elections. His most recent book is India, Pakistan, and Democracy: Solving the Puzzle of Divergent Paths (London & New York: Routledge, 2010). His current research and writing project has the working title of “The Indian Politician.”

Sonali Campion is Communications and Events Officer at the South Asia Centre. She holds a BA (Hons) in History from the University of Oxford and an MSc in Comparative Politics from LSE. She tweets @sonalijcampion.

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