Regardless of how we judge the variety of political actors in India and Pakistan, it should not pass under the radar that the governments in two of the most populous states in Asia are currently in differing ways trying to imprison and/or disqualify the most important opposition leaders ahead of the forthcoming elections in 2023 (Pakistan) and 2024.
In Pakistan, the deposed prime minister Imran Khan has organized large demonstrations against the caretaker government, led by Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Last year, a coalition in the parliament voted Khan out of his position as Prime Minister. They argued that he did not manage the economy and spread conspiracy theories about the U.S. Since his fall from power, Khan’s party (PTI) has continued to rank high in opinion polls. On the other hand, he faces several judicial cases; one is about selling gifts he has received as PM. A special accusation concerns his third marriage to his “spiritual advisor”, Bushra Bibi since he married her before she had been divorced for one year. According to critics, this practice does not comply with Sharia.
The new authorities have tried to imprison Khan; however, he has been released on bail, and in the most recent case, his arrest at Islamabad High Court was deemed unlawful by the Supreme Court. The threats loom while he is surrounded by a strong circle of activists who do everything, including resorting to violence, to protect him. On November 3 2022, he survived an attempt on his life and was brought to the hospital with three bullets in his hip and leg. During this attack, one person was killed and nine injured.
Until recently, Tehreek-e-Insaaf, Imran Khan’s party, led two of Pakistan’s four provinces, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the North-West and the most populous Punjab in the East. But the PML/PPP coalition dissolved the provincial assemblies and appointed caretaker governments. Subsequently, they promised new elections, but these have been postponed, disregarding the law stating they should be held within 60 days. The High Court in Punjab opposed the Central Election Commission and suggested that elections should be held before May 14, but this did not happen. The current rulers most likely fear that Khan’s party would win, as predicted by polls. National elections are also planned this year, but the schedule remains unclear. The latest step by the power holders is a suggestion from Pakistan Muslim League (N) to ban Khan’s party and thus prevent it from standing for elections.
In India, Rahul Gandhi, one of the Congress Party leaders, and grandson of former PM Indira Gandhi, as well as the great-grandson of India’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru, has been sentenced to two years of imprisonment for allegedly having insulted current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other bearers of the Modi name. This happened in Gujarat, where Modi’s party is in complete control. Modi has been critiqued for having undermined the independence of the Judiciary.
Rahul Gandhi has appealed, and he is also out on bail. If the sentence is upheld, Gandhi would not be able to stand for the national elections due in 2024. Critics of the BJP accuse the party of double standards since Modi himself has expressed worse characteristics about the Gandhi family, not least Rahul Gandhi’s mother, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi.
In the early spring of 2023, Rahul Gandhi made a Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unify India march) to gain confidence and support for the Congress party, which held power in India for most of the first fifty years of independence. In later years, corruption among party officials and ministers has severely weakened the party. In addition, it has not surprisingly been accused of dynastic tendencies. The Yatra was meant to polish Gandhi’s image as a man of the people. Such an image has traditionally been a strong point for the Hindu-nationalist Modi, while he is simultaneously surrounded by partly radical and violent mass organizations. Probably Narendra Modi has fewer reasons to fear the opposition than the Pakistani parties in power; in the polls and local elections, his party fares far better than the opposition.
Still, how the two governments treat opposition leaders is disturbing. Their acts partly confirm the two states’ shift towards autocracy, which has previously been observed by several bodies studying the global development of democracy. One of them is the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute. In their Democracy index, India is listed as number 97, and Pakistan, 106 of 179 states, monitored, which means they are both listed as “autocracies with elections”. In the most recent Press Freedom Index, India has dropped from 150 (2022) to 161 (2023) among 180 countries, while Pakistan has advanced a bit from 157 to 150. This is not sufficient to claim the two countries allow press freedom.
According to the U.N., India recently surpassed China as the most populous country in the world, with more than 1.4 billion citizens, while Pakistan is the world’s 5th largest. In the Norwegian public sphere, the development in the two neighbouring states is much neglected, which is not justified by any means.