India has rejected the politics of loyalty and legacy. Can Pakistan move on too?
In his book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, American political psychologist Drew Westen argues that feelings trump cold analysis in the making of political choices. What, then, was the dominant sentiment that resulted in the massive mandate for Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party in India’s latest general election?
As an India-friendly Pakistani currently living in exile in the US, I observed the Indian election through the media as well as the eyes of many Indian friends. That, admittedly, does not qualify me as an authority on Indian politics. But as Benazir Bhutto used to say “There is a bit of India in every Pakistani and there is an element of Pakistan in every Indian.”
Pakistan’s democrats admire Indian democracy and have always done so, even at the risk of being accused of being pro-Indian by the country’s military-dominated establishment. Linked by a shared civilisation and having been one country until 1947, the political sentiments on both sides of the border have remarkable similarities.
Indians have adhered to democracy consistently while the democratic aspirations of Pakistanis have been devoured by an overwhelming military-intelligence complex. But, like India, Pakistan’s democratic process (whenever it is allowed to operate) is influenced by familiar feelings about caste, religion, feudal loyalty and ethnic identity.
In the first few elections after Independence, Indian politics was dominated by the sentiment of gratitude towards those who led the country to freedom from the British. The foremost sentiment in Pakistan, of trying to forge a new nation and to justify the two-nation theory, ended in the military’s dominance. The task of defining Pakistani nationhood could not be left by the military to feudal politicians prone to cutting deals among themselves.
The death of Jawaharlal Nehru resulted in contention for leadership among many equals within the Indian National Congress. Indira Gandhi could claim Nehru’s legacy through the bloodline, making it easy for the people to transfer their emotional loyalty from Nehru, the freedom fighter, to Indira, the freedom fighter’s daughter. Her tragic assassination triggered the emotion of respect for sacrifice, which continued after the assassination of her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi. In Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) went through similar transitions after the judicial execution of the elder Bhutto and the terrorist assassination of his daughter, Benazir.
Family legacies had worked to build democracies in countries as far apart as Greece and India. The Papandreou and Karamanlis families provided leaders for rival parties in Greece, and the Nehru-Gandhi family was the focal point for the Indian National Congress. Pakistanis sought a similar nucleus in the Bhutto family for struggle against military rule. In India, the Nehru-Gandhi family made policy with a free hand but the Bhuttos in Pakistan have had the added burden of dealing with the machinations of the military-intelligence complex.
The politics of family legacy is often intertwined with ideology. For example, for many, the Nehru-Gandhi family represents India’s secularism and in Pakistan, the Bhuttos are identified with relative pluralism in an otherwise hardline Islamist ideological environment. But the depth of loyalty to a legacy lasts only as long as the memory of the legacy. With each passing generation, India’s memory of its freedom struggle is less sharp. Sentiments of loyalty over past sacrifices, too, cannot last forever.
As has been said by virtually every pundit and columnist over the last few days, India is now swept by the desire for progress and change. Ideology may still be important but performance and results matter more to more and more people.
The dominant sentiment in India’s latest election was embracing aspiration and modernity while rejecting ideology and legacy.The spectre of a communalist Modi did not scare voters because the Modi associated with the Gujarat riots of 2002 did not show up during the election campaign. The Modi people voted for espoused a vision for bullet trains, efficient government, economic opportunity and modernity.
The people are often willing to accept that leaders can change their view. After all, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-e-Azam of Pakistan, had gone from being an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity in the 1920s to being the principal advocate of the two-nation theory and Muslim separatism. It was sad as well as comical to see globally recognised terrorist Hafiz Saeed appear on Pakistani television to describe Modi’s election as prime minister as affirmation of the two-nation theory.
India appears to have moved beyond ideology as the core emotion of its politics.