‘Democratic peace’ in South Asia

Weekly Bang-e-Sahar Saturday, May 17—-23, 2008
By Aqil Shah
IN their 60 years as independent states, India and Pakistan have often snatched wars and near-wars from the jaws of peace. The trillion-dollar question is: how long will this go on? Is there any sustainable solution to the now nuclearised conflict over Kashmir?
It would clearly be outlandish to claim that there is a magic bullet for it. In fact, sceptics would claim that we seem as far away from a mutually acceptable permanent solution as we were in 1947-48. But it is far less imprudent to engage in a counterfactual thought experiment: would a democratic Pakistan be (or have been) less hostile towards a democratic India and vice versa?
The democratic peace theory tells us the answer is yes. Democracies are no more or less belligerent than dictatorships. In fact, they may even frequently attack non-democracies. But here is the crux: they rarely ever fight each other. The idea of this separate peace between democracies comes from the Enlightenment era German philosopher Immanuel Kant.
In Perpetual Peace (1795), Kant argued that ‘republican’ states would form peaceful unions in which they would trade war for profitable commerce. The evidence supporting the mutually pacifying power of democracy is strong and virtually irrefutable. Since 1815, no two democracies have engaged in a war against one another (war is defined here, in accordance with standard practice in security studies, as an interstate conflict that involves a total of 1,000 annual battle-related military deaths).
How does democratic peace work? For one, democracy rests on the liberal belief that individuals are sovereign. Since they are also self-regarding, war and destruction is unsuited to their pursuit of prosperity. And since elected governments reflect the will of the voter, democracies tend to resolve their conflicts peacefully.
Second, elected leaders cannot afford reckless foreign policy behaviour for fear of punishment at the ballot. Third, democracies are also home to the ‘marketplace of ideas’ in which the relatively free flow of information makes it possible for citizens to air their views and express opposition to costly conflicts. Policy ideas compete for relevance and traction in this marketplace which helps filter good ones from bad.
But all good things do not go together. And even if these conditions are more or less present in mature democracies, they are unlikely in a transitional one like Pakistan.
In fact, according to a modified version of the theory, transitional countries are more likely to be unstable, war-prone and hostile towards other states because of their institutional weaknesses which allow elites to exploit and inflate threats to cause war. But this transitional democracy as warrior thesis does not entirely refute the predictive power of the theory when applied to Pakistan.
For the few years they have been in power, elected civilians have not caused any major war with India. In fact, the decision to fight has never been taken under a government vulnerable to the loss of power through free and fair elections based on universal franchise.
Let us look at the four Indo-Pak wars of 1948, 1965, 1971 and Kargil. In 1948, Pakistan (and even India) was a ‘viceregal’ state, not a democracy, ruled as it was under an amended version of the Government of India Act, 1935. The then parliament was elected in 1946 in an election held under colonial rule with restricted franchise. The 1965 and 1971 wars were both waged when the military was directly in control of the state.
In the case of the 1965 war, it can be argued that Ayub used it to drum up nationalist sentiments and divert public attention from his political troubles at home. Remember though, Pakistan was a military dictatorship not a country in transition to democracy. The only exception appears to be the Kargil war as it occurred when the elected PML-N government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was in office. But even in that case, civilians were not the principal architects of the conflict.
In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the elected prime minister was not even totally privy to the full scope of the operation which was kept under tight wraps by the then army chief General Pervez Musharraf. Intuitively too, it did not make sense for Sharif to have stabbed the Indians in the back when he was engaged in a substantive dialogue with the then BJP government of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Still, the Kargil example does lend credence to the idea that transitional democracies can be more susceptible to irresponsible foreign policy actions than consolidated ones. But even if we accept that argument, it points to the need for more not less democracy in Pakistan.
At the end of the day, a democratic Pakistan will be a more reliable peacemaker in the region than any dictatorship. Unlike dictators inherently devoid of domestic legitimacy, a democratically elected Pakistani government backed by the popular will can not only credibly negotiate with India but do so on an equal footing.
It is hard to blame India if it is still wary of talking to a civilian government. After all, the bilateral peace process which culminated in the Lahore declaration between the Sharif and Vajpayee governments was abruptly buried by Musharraf in Kargil.
The Indian premier Manmohan Singh’s reported decision to delay his trip to Pakistan is hopefully an indication that New Delhi is willing to look beyond Musharraf as their main interlocutor in Islamabad. There is no doubt that India-Pakistan relations have improved considerably under his regime. But a peace process cannot be sustained on the goodwill of a military dictator turned peacemaker mainly under external pressure.
Normalising bilateral relations is an obviously urgent task that cannot wait for democracy to consolidate in Pakistan. But it is in the interest of both sides that the nascent democratic process in Pakistan is not disrupted. Democracy may or may not translate into regional peace anytime soon. But democracy is necessary for ensuring that any peace process is more than just froth floating on the surface of a simmering conflict.
The writer, a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University, is conducting his doctoral research in Pakistan.


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