Pakistan’s Biggest Problem? It’s Not India

How could two countries with so much common history find themselves looking at such drastically different futures?

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The founders of Pakistan had spent little time figuring out what Pakistan would be beyond a Muslim haven. Constitution writers debated for years whether Pakistan should be a secular democracy or Islamic republic. They decided on the latter, but by then, the military had taken control, and it has held on to that control for most of Pakistan’s existence.

Even being an Islamic republic is a relative concept. Benazir Bhutto, educated at Harvard and Oxford, proclaimed her country a moderate Islamic state. Moderate, that is, compared to other countries like neighboring Iran.

Successive heads of state have on occasion turned in the other direction, trying to out-Islam their rivals. The seeds for the army’s current battle with the Taliban began with a government deal to cede control of one area so the militia could impose Islamic law. Alarms sounded when the Taliban expanded into adjoining locales.

Zardari’s government, or perhaps military commanders on their own, hesitated to commit army troops. The bulk of the force is deployed to defend against a possible attack from its massive neighbor India. Primal fear grips Pakistan, with its population of 176 million, that it sometimes seems the very reason for the country’s existence.

What would happen to Pakistan if India’s government suddenly conceded everything in dispute and could somehow make all of its Hindu citizens treat Muslims as equals? What would hold Pakistan together?

Over the years, India and Pakistan have tried, in fits and starts, to resolve their differences. They should keep trying, in part because Pakistan would benefit from the closer relationship. It could stand to learn a few things from its fearsome neighbor about tolerance of dissent and difference, power sharing and compromise, the rule of law, a free press and civilian control of the military.

Manmohan Singh, who was and will be India’s prime minister, is not a Hindu. He is a member of the minority Sikh religion. Once again, he will lead a coalition government, with his Congress Party sharing power with much smaller parties.

Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is a freelance journalist based in Boston. He covered India and Pakistan for the Washington Post.