Headstart: Does it matter in institutionalizing democracy? The Indian example

They say that the first five years in the life of a child are crucial for her sound development, both emotionally and physically. In those years, especially the first three, a child’s foundation is built which then forms the basis for her future development. Thus a child who has access to a healthy, stable, and nurturing environment is known to have a headstart vis-à-vis those who have not had the benefit of that kind of stimulating exposure. No wonder that scientific wisdom accords utmost care to these initial years.

This leads us to the question of whether in the history of a young nation, the initial years matter in giving it a headstart akin to what is discussed above.

Parade for India's Republic Day

Parade for India’s Republic Day at the Ananda Shila School, Jharkhand state, India. Source: Wikimedia.

On a grey morning last week, Professor Maya Tudor encouraged us to think what made India and Pakistan – born  of the same stock, baptized by the same fire – evolve differently in the past seven decades. It is my case that India had a headstart in institutional formation in its first five years after her Independence in 1947. Pakistan seems to me to have missed this bus.

Under the leadership of the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his stellar interim cabinet, India was able to establish its Constitution in early 1950 (incidentally, on this day, 26th of January) while Pakistan had to wait till 1956 for it. Within three years, India was able to identify with and establish herself as a secular, socialist democratic republic, which enabled her to align steadily with these cardinal principles. The Constitution gave India its Supreme Court thereby establishing a sound judicial system. It was only in 1956 that Pakistan could establish its Supreme Court along with its Constitution. India conducted its first general elections in 1951 and put an elected Assembly in place as early as 1952 while Pakistan waited till 1970 for its first general elections though provincial elections had taken place in fits and starts through out the 50s. For a young nation, an early Parliament meant the promulgation of essential legislations and the rigor of debate and deliberations whereby parliamentary democracy came to be established as the norm.

This is the case of the five-year plans too, although the legacy of planned economy is much debated now. India rolled out its first five-year plan in 1951 while Pakistan could do so only in 1955. This immediately saw focused efforts to achieve planned economic growth, a crucial fight against poverty, and attainment of food security. Another institutional head start that India enjoyed was that of a Central Bank in the form of the Reserve Bank of India, which was nationalized as early as 1949. Note that the State Bank of Pakistan was nationalized only in 1974.

In sheer numbers, these may seem merely four or five examples here and there. In some aspects like that of Elections and Central Banking, Pakistan was more than two decades late than India. Does it matter? I believe it does. A child who speaks at year one and another who speaks at year five reflects crucial gaps that could be indicators of her future growth. For the same reason, for a nation in the making, reaching the milestones early accords a headstart that enables it to grow deep roots. This then supports political institutionalization that gives the nation value and vitality. It enables it to develop complex organisations that adapt, survive and sustain.

The concept of finger memory or muscle memory beautifully explained by my nana while teaching me crochet: that an action is made stronger by repetition, and repetition over time make actions perfect. The earlier we do, the more we get to do and the more we get to do, the more robust we become.

The headstart that India gained immediately after Independence proved pivotal in that it gave it muscle memory. The sheer practice of democracy in the form of conducting and voting in general elections, the process of counting and consolidation of results leading up to the installation of a government started for India as early as 1951 and has since been a practice every five years till now. A free and fair judiciary, personal liberty and the system of checks and balances took roots in India through this process. By the time Pakistan went to polls in 1970, India was many elections old and many institutions more thereby giving its body politik and civil society enough muscle memory.

The one time that Emergency was declared in India in 1975, it is exactly this muscle memory of Indian democracy that led its judiciary and civil society (so used to political liberty now) to reclaim their constitutional credentials vehemently.

The question of why India was able to achieve this headstart may be answered through the narratives of leadership styles, availability of talent pool in India and dearth of it in Pakistan and other historical advantages. But there seems to be no denying that the early establishment of governance structures in India soon after Independence made its democracy robust. The time lag that Pakistan suffered (maybe because of Quaid-e-Azam’s untimely demise for one), proved too costly for the young nation in that it gave opportunity for undesirable elements of military, landed elite, religious leaders et al to debilitate the process of institutional formation.

While there is a plenitude of factors that could explain the differences between India and Pakistan in their political evolution, it is the case of this blog that a structural approach by political scientists, especially their growth chart in the first five years after Independence, will provide deep insights.

Susan Thomas is currently studying for an MPP at the Blavatnik School of Government. She works with the Government of India and has handled various assignments in corporate and personal income tax, anti corruption and vigilance, capacity building, budgeting and personnel management since 2001.

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