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Stability or Democracy?

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 20, 2011

    SD Muni, India’s Foreign Policy: the Democracy Dimension (With Special Reference to Neighbours), Foundation Books, Delhi, 2009, pp. 174. ISBN 978 81 7596 713-7. Price not stated.

    India is the world’s largest democracy. There is a huge pro-democracy public sentiment in India for the democratic struggles of people in other countries. Yet, India, unlike the West, has refrained from promoting democracy as an ideology in other countries in an aggressive way. In the past Indian governments have not hesitated to deal with non-democratic regimes – monarchies, dictatorships, authoritarian rulers – in other countries. At the same time, depending upon the circumstances, they have unambiguously supported democratic movements in other countries. In deciding on whether to support or not support democratic movements, India has invariably been guided by its strategic and security interests rather than democratic sentiments. It has supported democratic struggles when such support coincided with India’s national interests.

    What role does democracy as an ideology play in India’s foreign policy? Professor S.D. Muni has explored this question at length in his book. He has taken examples from India’s neighbourhood and examined several historical episodes to draw nuanced conclusions about the salience of the democratic dimension in India’s foreign policy.

    His main conclusion is this: the fact that India is a democracy does not necessarily imply that it will support democratic movements in neighbouring countries automatically. Democracy promotion is not an ideology for Indian policy makers; instead, they have followed a pragmatic policy. India supported democratic movements when it reckoned that doing so would be in its national interest. And it refused to do so when it perceived that support for democratic movements would cause instability in the region and undermine India’ security and strategic interests. In other words, India has sought to place a premium on stability rather than on democracy. Prof. Muni points out that in the event of a clash between democracy promotion and security, “security interests have prevailed” (p. 137).

    The author takes several examples from Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sikkim to make his case. Thus, in Nepal, India helped the country to get rid of the autocratic Rana rule but refrained from giving full support to the Nepali Congress which was fighting the monarchy. As a result, the hands of King Mahendra were strengthened and an undemocratic Panchayati raj system was perpetrated until the 1990s when the multiple party system was eventually established as a result of a Jan Andolan. Analysing India’ security factors operating at that time – communist China’s rising influence and the instability in Nepal – Prof. Muni concludes: “ Thus, for the sake of preserving its security interests, India had to compromise on the democracy objective in Nepal” (p. 43). More recently, India supported the King until the Jan Andolan II in 2006 unseated him. Nepal is too sensitive to India for security reasons. The irony, however is that despite India’s preference for Nepal’s monarchs, most of them did not hesitate to play the ‘China card’ to keep India unsettled.

    Like Nepal, Bhutan is also very sensitive for India’s security. In Bhutan, India fully supported the monarch and now supports the constitutional monarchy. In Sikkim, before it merged with India in 1975, the government was supporting the Chogyal and the feudal interests. But, once the new king and his American wife started undermining India’s security interests in the sixties and seventies, the government began to support the democratic forces. This ultimately resulted in the merger of Sikkim with India.

    In Pakistan, India has been sympathetic of democracy and democratic forces but it has not hesitated to deal with military rulers and dictators. The situation is made more complicated by the fact that democratically elected governments in Pakistan have also followed anti-India policies. Thus India has remained suspicious of democracy in Pakistan.

    India played a crucial role in the emergence of Bangladesh where the Pakistani army carried out a genocide in 1971. India’s support for Mujib’s muktibahini and the Awami League was natural, but again, Prof. Muni argues, the calculations behind supporting the democratic forces were strategic. The massive influx of refugees into India as a result of the Pakistani pogrom and the ‘opportunity of the century’ to weaken Pakistan played a role in India’s support for Bangladesh’s democratic forces. India has also been wary of some democratically elected governments in Bangladesh that have followed an anti-India line and undermined India’s interests.

    Myanmar is critical for stability in India’s security. While during Nehru’s time India fully supported the democratic forces represented by U Nu, the conditions changed after U Nu was overthrown in a military coup and Gen. Ne Win took over. India-Myanmar relations went into a freeze. India fully supported the pro-democratic forces in Myanmar and continued to do so even when the NLD was denied its right to rule after the 1990 elections. However, supporting democracy and ASSK proved costly for India as China made deep inroads into Myanmar by fully supporting the military rulers. India had to change its policy and mended fences with the military junta because of serious security and strategic considerations.

    The exploration of India’s democracy dimension in India’s foreign policy over the last sixty years leads Prof. Muni to believe that even Nehru, a committed democrat, had to compromise on supporting democracy in the neighbourhood due to the prevailing security environment. Nehru was concerned about China’s forays into India’s neighbourhood and also of US interests in the region. Nehru’s successors were more realistic and hard headed on the democracy question. Their passion for supporting democracy “radically declined” (p. 127).

    Going beyond the neighbourhood, the book also explores the larger question of the role of democracy in India’s foreign policy. India joined the US-inspired Community of Democracy initiative launched in Warsaw in 2000 and has contributed to the UN Democracy Fund. India’s joining the initiative was announced during President Clinton’s visit of 2000. How sustainable is India’s membership in the community of democracies which has a visible US imprint?

    Several critics of the Indian decision have argued that this step is an endorsement of US global strategic interests. However, India’s participation in the initiative has not been smooth given that it objected to the community of democracy’s anti-Zimbabwean, anti-Belarusian formulations. India is aware of the fact that its position on democracy promotion may not coincide with those of the West. Mindful of the likely divergence in India’s and US strategic interests, Prof. Muni cautions that in its neighbourhood India should not give in to “pressures and temptations from the US or any other source…” (p. 137).

    Surprisingly, the author does not explore the democracy dimension in India’s relations with Sri Lanka and Maldives. Further, Tibet and China are mentioned only briefly. In the author’s view India has been tentative on Tibet and China because it does not have the wherewithal of promoting democracy there.

    Prof. Muni is a well known expert on South Asian affairs. In writing this book, he relies on a wealth of primary and secondary sources. He has interviewed many persons in different countries who had a role in the affairs of their respective countries. He brings to bear his considerable expertise and knowledge to explore India’s neighbourhood policy through the prism of democracy. Few books explore the democracy dimension of India’s foreign policy; this book fills that gap.