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HOW would you feel if you lived in a poor neighbourhood and your neighbours started getting rich while you became poorer?

Angry, envious, depressed, suspicious? Pakistanis have experienced these emotions collectively as East Asia and the Middle East developed. Now even countries down the road in South Asia are developing.

Dubai and Korea are already rich, India is moving and, to add insult to injury, unconfirmed rumor has it that even Bangladesh is on to something since the familial break-up. Thank God for Afghanistan and Nepal! We can still walk around in the neighbourhood with some semblance of self-respect.

Perceptively concluding that our failure has something to do with governance, we tried both dictatorship and democracy, but neither worked. This calls for an urgent analysis of why what works for swans does not work for us, and developing our own walk.

Sociologists say that political systems derive from social structures. Democracy works best in societies with atomistic families where sub-national identities between national and family levels, e.g., based on community and religion, are weak or do not affect people's political choices, which are based on policies.

High education and incomes weaken sub-national identities (for better or worse) and help democracy. Where these are low and people are trapped in unequal traditional relations, they give more emphasis to identities than issues in voting, resulting in the rise of ethnic/family politics.

People depend on the position of the biradari in political structure rather than a well-functioning governing structure. Politicians use the state to distribute largesse among supporters rather than developing an economy that generates broad-based opportunities. They keep administrative structures weak so that people remain dependent on informal power networks. This cooks the goose of democracy.

Dictatorship survives but contributes to the dictators' kitties rather than development where the army is the only power centre but consists of poorly educated warlords while parties, businessmen and landlords are weak, ethnic differences high, and the educated diaspora small, as in Africa. Rarely, dictatorships facilitate development, as in East Asia, when the dictators are educated, ethnic homogeneity is high and people are docile and accept a centralised authority.

Things become easier if the dictator's rule furthers the American calculus and succeeds in turning on American generosity. All this was true in most of East Asia. Thus, the relative success of dictatorships there was based on contextual factors that may not exist everywhere. Even there, where ethnic heterogeneity was high, as in Indonesia, the benefits of development flowed to some ethnic groups, leading to ethnic tensions and country's break-up.

Where does Pakistan stand? Education and incomes are low, sub-national identities strong, and unequal traditional relationships rampant. Thus, Pakistan lacks most prerequisites for democracy. Why does India do better on democracy then?

Over the last 800 years, India was repeatedly attacked from the north-west. The conquerors grabbed lands and established feudal structures. However, except for the Mughals, others remained confined to the north, and south India suffered less destruction and feudalism.

Unfortunately, the one conqueror that established a modern state, the British, entered India from south and east rather than north-west. While colonisation's overall impact was negative, the few good things that it brought — education, rule of law and the urban economy — spread inwards from south and east and reached current-day Pakistan last.

No wonder, the south and east produce India's finest minds. The grass-root approach adopted by Congress, particularly Gandhi — going to villages to raise awareness — also helped in establishing democracy on a stronger footing than in Pakistan where the Muslim League co-opted feudal elements.

Even though most of India was not ready for democracy in 1947, enough of it allowed an urban educated leadership to become the largest single group and gain control in parliament. This was not true of Pakistan. That is why land reforms were easy in India and difficult in Pakistan. Nehru's longevity also helped. Before I get accused of being a lover of dictatorship, let me add that, paradoxically, Pakistan also lacks most prerequisites for successful dictatorships. While generals are educated, we received much less aid from the US than Korea which has adoringly savoured American boots on the ground for 60 years while Afghan war aid for us so far has only lasted 10 years, twice.

The largest ethnic groups, far from being docile, are fiercely proud of their autonomy, rugged, and well armed to give the army a run for its money on their own turf if it infringes local autonomy or does not spread the fruits of development evenly. Businessmen, media and judiciary are strong and bristle at army dictation. In short, paradoxically, the ineffectiveness of both democracy and dictatorship in Pakistan is rooted in the same social structures — polycentrism, localism and a high level of ethnic heterogeneity.

Viewed so, democracy is still more suited for Pakistani culture than dictatorship as it gives more local autonomy, especially with devolution.

The main problem under dictatorship is political strife or even secession given its centralised nature. The main danger under democracy is corruption/incompetence which reduces economic performance. The first one is a much more dangerous problem. The comparative performances of the 1990s and the 2000s (the latter operated under a more favourable external environment) show that the cost of incompetence to economic performance under democracy is less than one per cent of lower annual growth.

This is a tolerable price to pay for avoiding the risk of a country's break-up or major strife under dictatorship, which costs incalculably more. While immediate governance is weaker under democracy, it improves gradually as people's freedom, education and incomes increase with development. True, development is slowed down by poor governance. So, there is a vicious circle. Vicious circles are broken by other factors positively affecting the viciously locked variables, e.g., external resources for development.

We can hope for windfall American aid or bonanza from Central Asia/China so that the vicious circle breaks quicker. More likely, it will break gradually through milder external and internal factors, e.g. moderate external support, donor/media/judiciary pressure for better governance and grass-roots awareness-raising. This may take 20-25 years at current rates. If this sounds long, the other option is another dose of dictatorship, with its risks to unity. I choose democracy!

The writer is a research associate on political economy issues at the University of California at Berkeley, US.