Two countries with a common and ancient civilization, India and Pakistan, celebrated 60 years of independence from colonial rule this week. At the time of independence, both countries were in danger of collapsing from internal and external threats. This greatly influenced both countries' subsequent turn toward centralism - in India's case, statism, and in Pakistan's case, army rule.
For four decades, both statism and army rule seemed irreversible. This was despite failures across the board: In both countries, territory was lost and the economy stagnated. Resources were spent on developing nuclear weaponry and on dealing with the Kashmir insurgency, which was fostered by Pakistan and repressed by India. What was left was often wasted through corruption. By 1990, it was common for Pakistan to be labeled a failed state and India, perhaps more damningly, a failed democracy.
Pakistan's army and feudal landlords, who shared political power via an informal coalition throughout the first 40 years, deserve most of the blame for Pakistan's failures. They carved up the economy among themselves, and let the poor survive by growing food and providing simple services to the rich. India's greater failures hid these strategies from national or global attention. Pakistan even overtook India for a while until Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's nationalizations of the 1970s brought them on par again.
Pakistan, a day older than India, but with an even younger population, seems to have aged more poorly over the past two decades. As the Indian economy picks up speed on the back of the 1991 reforms, India is on its way to becoming a global player in services and acquiring as formidable a reputation as China for job creation. The IT sector alone creates three new jobs every minute of each working day. In the four statistics that really matter - literacy, life expectancy, infant mortality rates and the female-to-male ratio - only in the last does Pakistan perform better than India and that, too, marginally. In the others, it is substantially worse.
There is no single reason for Pakistan's poorer performance. It turned as reformist as India in the 1990s. This has benefited some parts of its economy. For instance, the country adds over 2.5 million new cell phone users each month, or 1 for every second of the day. Though below India's rate of 2.7 new cell phone users per second, it is a much better ratio to the population.
Religious fervor is often accused, but has not - in either the subcontinent's history or in Pakistan's shorter one - been a barrier to development. Despite incidents such as led to the recent siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, theocratic parties have never received more than 15 percent of the popular vote - and that was three decades ago. Evidence within all the countries of South Asia provides proof of the proposition that the poor, regardless of faith or ethnicity, seek the means of development, particularly the acquisition of education. Muslims are no exception to this proposition. For instance, the first administrative district to reach 100 percent literacy in the subcontinent was the Muslim-majority district of Malappuram in the Indian state of Kerala.
Finally, one cannot simply blame performance on Pakistan not being a full democracy. The world abounds with more failed than successful democracies, while China provides the most stunning counterexample of a successful dictatorship. Pakistan's current state of governance - in which the military, the courts and parliament share power and the press is relatively free - has been achieved through decades of negotiation and may well be the best framework given its current stage of political maturity.
Yet, there is one difference that may be the real reason for Pakistan's backwardness, and it is now becoming evident - again, by comparison with India. It is linked to bad governance but does not always follow from the democratic tradition. The difference is, in a word, freedom. India provides a good example: The government used to decide how resources were spent, leaving citizens with few choices on careers, education and lifestyles - on participation in their nation's growth. Since the 1990s, the Indian state has worked hard to give its citizens more freedom. The result is an invigorated India.
Pakistan, meanwhile, has moved slowly on freedom. The state has withdrawn from the economy, but now grants favors selectively to the private sector, with the inevitable corollary of massive corruption and loss of freedom of action.
This suggests that Pakistan is only a crucial freedom step away from success. In reality, the immediate future does not look promising because the country's citizens do not have the political will to achieve real change. It is a sad commentary that Pakistan's choices for the next cycle of political rule look like bad ones: the continuation of the present system of quasi-military rule or its replacement with the destructive feudal forces that Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif represent. Surely, Pakistan's citizens deserve much better - something worth pondering as their nation celebrates turning 60.
Reprinted with permission by The San Jose Mercury News.