Pakistan’s Biggest Problem? It’s Not India

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Things are pretty calm in India. Its recent election of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh means that the world’s largest democracy will once again be led by a seasoned economist. And it all happened peacefully, fairly and relatively without incident.

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By contrast, in Pakistan, the army is fighting to recapture territory from the Taliban and shore up a civilian government elected last year after an army general ruled for a decade. The Islamic fundamentalist militia has taken control of territory so close to the capital that there are international worries about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal falling into terrorist hands.

These parallel events are enough to make anybody wonder how two neighboring countries, once part of the same British colony, could be so vastly different. And the answer is simply that India always knew what it wanted to be a secular democracy, and Pakistan knew it didn’t want to be India.

Singh has a soft voice, and his words can be boring, but he knows what he’s doing when it comes to the economy. On the news of his party’s triumph, India’s main stock market rose 17 percent in a day, despite the global recession.

In Pakistan, the man in charge of getting the country out of its shaky situation is a wheeler-dealer businessman who amassed most of his wealth while his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was prime minister. President Asif Ali Zardari, though, is not boring.

So how does it happen that two countries created at the same moment have come to be so different, while they share so much common history and ethnic heritage? How does much bigger, more diverse India wind up being the more stable country?

By the time the British botched the bloody partition of 1947 that divided the subcontinent, the founders of modern India had already decided what kind of nation they wanted to create. They had been working on the concept for at least two decades. Pakistan’s leaders are still, at this very moment, trying to figure out their nation’s identity.

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India was to be a secular democracy with a sense of social justice. After independence, that idea was fleshed out and refined in writing a final constitution that borrowed from the charters of other democracies, including ours, and wound up being the world’s longest. My bound, annotated copy is as thick as an average book.

India has pretty much become what its founders envisioned, though the democracy of 1.1 billion is not without flaws. Violence between majority Hindus and minority Muslims still flares. Lower caste Hindus continue to strive for fair treatment and a fair share of the nation’s wealth. Gender bias against women remains rampant, particularly in rural areas, where most Indians live.

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Pakistan, too, started with a central idea: as a haven for Muslims from Hindu domination. It was and is a conditional concept; it’s meaning is dependent on the actions of outsiders—the Hindus of India.

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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

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