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EFSAS Commentary

India and Pakistan mark 75 years of independence: a lot has been achieved but much more remains to be done


India and Pakistan both celebrated their independence from British colonial rule in 1947 this week – the former on 15 August and the latter a day earlier on 14 August. As the two nations looked back on how they had evolved and what they had achieved over the past 75 years, their dreams and visions for what lay ahead was equally as much on most minds.

At the time of the hasty British withdrawal from India after dividing the subcontinent into two nations on the basis of religion, both India and Pakistan faced similar problems. The bloody partition, massive migration, and divisions in society on the basis of caste, creed and language were compounded by an economy drained merciless by the British colonial rulers over centuries before they finally departed. According to the historian William Dalrymple, the partition of India displaced as many as 15 million people, and over a million were killed in the deadly communal violence that erupted. This violent partition not only rewrote the history of British India but also led to deep wounds on both sides of the border that still persist three quarters of a century later. As the Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal observed, “A defining moment that is neither beginning nor end, the partition continues to influence how the peoples and States of postcolonial South Asia envisage their past, present, and future”.

When the British left India in 1947, its literacy rate stood at merely 12% and life expectancy was 30 years. Poverty, disease, and malnourishment were rampant. India’s industrial and technological base was virtually non-existent. Some historians had gone to the extent of predicting that India would not survive as a nation. However, as Usman Lashari, a Pakistan-origin faculty of the Brown University in the United States (US) pointed out, “Fast forward to 2022, its literacy rate is more than 77%, life expectancy is around 70 years, and other human development indices are significantly better than Pakistan. Moreover, India has developed a vibrant and modern technological and industrial base and is a significant international power already”.

On the economic front, India’s leaders faced a formidable task at the time of independence. The country’s GDP was a mere 3% of the world’s total. In the 75 years since achieving independence, India has scripted a phenomenal transformation from an impoverished nation into an emerging global power whose $3 trillion economy is Asia’s third largest. Dramatic progress came with historic reforms in the 1990s that swept away decades of socialist control over the economy and spurred remarkable growth. Millions have escaped poverty into a growing, aspirational middle class as India’s high-skilled sectors have soared. India has turned into a major exporter of things like software and vaccines. As Nimish Adhia, a professor in economics at Manhattanville College observed, “It’s extraordinary — a poor country like India wasn’t expected to succeed in such sectors”. The past few decades inspired comparisons to China as foreign investment poured in, exports thrived, and new industries were born. Despite persisting economic challenges like the Covid-19 disruption in last 2 years and the uncertain geopolitical scenario owing to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, India is projected to be the world’s fastest growing economy this year.

The nature of the political regime that independent India opted for had a lot to do with the country’s subsequent progress. When India gained independence, its founding fathers envisioned the newly free nation as a secular multicultural State. That decision has seven decades later helped India emerge as a democratic counterweight to its authoritarian neighbor, China. India has held free elections since its independence and had peaceful transfers of power, and it has had a largely independent judiciary and a vibrant media landscape. Since its independence, India has been proud of its multiculturalism, even though it has sometimes struggled with sectarian strife.

The post-independence situation across the border in Pakistan evolved so differently that it caused the Pakistani political economist Dr. Niaz Murtaza to raise weighty questions in his 9 August article in the Pakistani daily Dawn – “Why did a State created with huge hopes as a haven for tens of millions come to this point? Both the State we broke from (India) and the one that broke from us (Bangladesh) are doing better. Why did the same DNA not deliver for us?”

Lashari provided some of the answers when he wrote, “Soon after independence, Pakistan suffered its most significant setback when its founder Jinnah died. Jinnah’s death radically shaped the course Pakistan took after 1947. While Nehru was busy transforming India, Pakistanis had a Prime Minister murdered; they were actively looking for foreign alliances and aid. Pakistan had its first coup, and things only got worse. Pakistan lost half its land mass in 1971 and never had a stable democratically elected government. Although Pakistan had elections, it never really had democracy. Economic democracy is a distant dream. Pakistan’s foreign policy depended on whoever was the biggest donor to Pakistan at that time. The only notable achievement was Pakistan becoming a nuclear State, but Pakistanis failed to integrate any military or scientific success into their civil society or commercialize it for economic benefits. Due to a lack of democratic norms and principles, and repeated interference by internal or external powers, no institution could evolve and progress in Pakistan and attain any global stature. We, Pakistanis, failed to develop knowledge and scientific base; hence, Pakistan is even food insecure today. Pakistan’s human developmental indices are among the worst in the world. Pakistan remains as politically unstable as it has been in its history. Pakistani society has become increasingly polarized and divided in recent years”.

On the political front, while democracy thrived in India, Pakistan alternated between civilian and military regimes since its Independence. As a result, no elected Prime Minister of Pakistan was able to complete his or her full term in office. As many as three civilian governments have been overthrown by the Pakistani Army and four Army Chiefs became President. Pakistan has spent nearly half of its 75-year existence under military rule. Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani Ambassador to the US, told Deutsche Welle that political discontinuity has “contributed greatly” to Pakistan's problems as the country has “alternated between military rule and civilian governance in a cyclical pattern”. She added that “It has also left a legacy of a power asymmetry between elected and unelected institutions”, and that  “Governance challenges are also the result of blowback from the country's protracted geopolitical engagements during the Cold War and beyond, impact of great power rivalries and the fault lines of geopolitics in the region”.

Dr. Murtaza, not without justification, laid much of the blame for Pakistan’s enduring plight upon the dictator General Zia-ul-Haq who came to power in a military coup in 1977 and ruled Pakistan with an iron grip till his death in a plane crash on 17 August 1988. He wrote, “All main eras before and after contributed but it was under Gen Zia that our perverse State geopolitical development model cemented most, consisting as it did of a politically autocratic and security-focused outlook that banked heavily on big power aid. Much of the latter was divided up among national elites in the form of tax breaks and subsidies, producing a stagnant economy reliant on handouts rather than economic dynamism. It also fed extremist groups to pursue its regional and national aims against regional and national foes… But after four decades, key planks of this model have become non-viable. The world has become intolerant of extremist groups and is no longer giving free handouts. The domestic costs of political engineering and the extremist and populist politics it has produced are mounting. The economy is stagnant and crisis-prone and social structures in society increasingly retrogressive, leading to violence and societal mediocrity. Clearly, continuing with such a State model will not work. Yet a new model is hard to attain as the economic interests of all elite groups are so heavily reliant on the failing model”.

The present phase of severe economic strife that has plagued Pakistan over the past several years and which shows no signs of abating is a direct legacy of the State model that Dr. Murtaza has alluded to. Pakistan is reeling under its worst-ever economic crisis. Its foreign exchange reserves have depleted to dangerous levels, while India’s forex count is currently the world’s 5th largest. The contrast is so stark that India’s forex reserves are almost 1.7 times the size of Pakistan’s entire GDP. Pakistan remains a net importer of goods and services, and its industrialization has not expanded sufficiently to close the gap. The ratio between tax collection and GDP as well as between exports and GDP for Pakistan is also among the lowest in the world. The government, therefore, faces a persistent shortage of revenue and the country confronts a perennial shortage of foreign exchange.

It needs to be pointed out that despite the commendable progress that India has achieved in the past 75 years, just like in the case of Pakistan, much still remains to be done. Whether it be India’s low per capita income, the huge and growing gap between its rich and poor, its rising unemployment levels, or indeed its middling ranking on the Human Development Index (HDI), they all could do with much improvement. On the other hand, it would be unfair to suggest that the entire past 75 years have been an unmitigated disaster for Pakistan. As Lodhi pointed out, just like India “Pakistan has made progress in many areas. That includes pulling people out of extreme poverty and building a significant industrial and agricultural base. Its much larger middle class now contributes in many ways to the country’s progress, but major challenges persist. Many overlap and have been reinforcing each other in a vicious cycle over the decades”. The difference between where the two countries presently stand, however, is apparent from the fact that while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is today speaking of catapulting India into a developed nation by the time the 100th anniversary of Independence comes around, the debate in Pakistan is on how to get the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to urgently release funds to aid the economy’s survival, or on how to get China and the Gulf countries to provide loans that will help avert the next impending default.

Husain Haqqani, another former Pakistani Ambassador to the US who is currently director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., underlined that “Successive Pakistani leaders made the choice of depending on foreign aid while building military capacity, ignoring the fundamentals of economics”. He also pointed out Islamabad’s overwhelming foreign policy focus on archrival India. He said, “Pakistan's foreign policy, and diplomacy has been driven by an ideology-based paradigm, which has centered on parity with its larger neighbor. Relations with the US during the Cold War, with China, and even with countries in the larger Muslim world have focused on the India factor, instead of ensuring national security and fostering economic development”.

Disputes over their shared border and the territory of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) have been a recurrent source of conflict between India and Pakistan over the course of their post-independence histories, and new geopolitical alignments, changes in conventional and nuclear military capabilities, and deep mistrust continue to forestall any normalization of ties. China’s rise and the attendant great power competition have complicated both Islamabad’s and New Delhi’s strategic calculus as they both look to balance relations with Washington and Beijing.

Julian Borger, world affairs editor at The Guardian, believes that three quarters of a century on, the trauma of Partition remains an open wound in the subcontinent, always prone to flaring up, particularly in J&K. While the dispute over J&K dates back to Partition itself, the global arena in which India and Pakistan confront each other has changed radically. The US has left Afghanistan, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has deepened the division and tension between the major powers, and China’s rising power and increasingly aggressive global stance bring it each day into more open confrontation with the US.

These global developments have had the effect of driving the South Asian neighbours further apart. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year means that Pakistan is less strategically important to Washington. Meanwhile, Chinese expansionism has triggered a standoff with India in the Himalayas. The India-China rivalry has driven India closer to the US, while Pakistan has further tightened its relationship with China. India has also so far managed to maintain a balance with its powerful partners, deepening cooperation with the US over China, while fending off pressure from Washington to help isolate Russia over the Ukraine invasion. A former senior Pakistani diplomat, Jalil Abbas Jilani, feels that India’s position on almost every issue regarding Pakistan has hardened ever since it emerged as a strategic partner of the US, but Husain Haqqani, commenting on Pakistan’s choices, argued that “Hitching your wagon first to America and then to China reflect an attitude that we have to find somebody to pay our bills in return for strategic favours. As a long-term plan, it is always a bad idea to try to make your nationhood – as well as your political, economic and cultural survival – totally dependent on other people’s conflicts”.

For India and Pakistan to better meet the socioeconomic development needs of their populations and achieve their full potential by the time the centenary of Independence is marked in 2047, their leaderships will need to rise above their many complex differences, even if these have been further complicated by geopolitical developments beyond their control, and find a way to co-exist peacefully, if not cordially.