Authoritarianism in Pakistan

By Barany, Zoltan | Policy Review, August-September 2009 | Go to article overview

Authoritarianism in Pakistan


Barany, Zoltan, Policy Review


PRACTICALLY FROM THE moment of its creation in 1947, Pakistan has been plagued by ethnic tensions, mis-management, and corruption. The profound incompetence of its civilian rulers in the first decade of independence created a political vacuum filled by the generals, who have ruled or dominated Pakistan, directly or indirectly, for much of its history. The country's dismal political record and lackluster socioeconomic development are all the more remarkable when contrasted with the relative success of its gigantic neighbor to the east. To be sure, India has also encountered ethno-religious conflicts, widespread poverty, and many other challenges, but it has remained a functioning democracy with an increasingly promising economic future. Why has Pakistan failed where India succeeded? Why has it become an authoritarian state? Why have its armed forces been able to dominate its political life?

To place Pakistan's predicament in the proper perspective, we should consider the roots of its sovereign statehood--the colonial past, the circumstances of its founding, and the early years of its independence--and trace the evolution of its principal political player, the military. Three points are key. First, the political legacies of British colonialism impacted India and Pakistan differently. Second, the circumstances of British India's 1947 partition and the events of the immediate post-partition period suggest several reasons for the different political trajectories of its two successor states. Finally, within the first decade of its independence, the authoritarian mold of Pakistan's political system was cast, and since then we have witnessed different permutations of that early prototype. Thus, the Pakistani experience supports the argument that the fate of political transitions is frequently determined in the first few years after the fall of the ancien regime.

The British legacy

FEW IMPERIAL POWERS succeeded in leaving behind such a durable imprint on their subject peoples as the British did in South Asia. And after more than six decades of independence, no other Pakistani or Indian institution retains as much of its British origins as the armed forces, owing to their members' extensive training by and exposure to their British counterparts during the colonial era, the continued education of their elites at British institutions and, no doubt, to the military's relative separation from the rest of society. Four distinct legacies of the British India Army (BIA) are particularly relevant here. Three of these--professionalism, ethnocentric recruitment, and the army's aid to civil authorities--have had a similar effect on the armies of both successor states. The fourth--the British insistence on clear separation between the political and military domains--had a strong impact on India but eluded Pakistan. Let us take a closer look at all of them.

Professionalism. The British provided rigorous and modern military training and an attractive career option to qualified native Indians. The cream of the crop received officer education at Sandhurst in England, but training was ongoing in the garrisons and bases throughout British India. Until 1939 the officer corps was relatively small and tight-knit, but the need for a much larger force in World War II required its quick expansion, which resulted in the changing ratio of British to Indian officers from 10:1 to 4.1:1. (1) Most importantly, the British instilled a military ethos that put high value on professional competence, and the officer corps of both independent Pakistan and India has kept these traditions alive.

Ethnic preference in recruitment. A more controversial legacy is the discriminatory view of the warlike qualities of various ethnic groups. One of the pillars of the BIA'S success was its careful staffing policy. Recruiters generally avoided enlisting Bengalis and drew from regions in the west, especially the Punjab, which had mostly remained loyal to the British at the time of the anti-colonial Mutiny of 1857.

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