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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 49, November 27, 2010

The Democracy Question in Indian Foreign Policy

Wednesday 1 December 2010, by Arvind Kumar



India’s Foreign Policy: The Democracy Dimension (With Special Reference to Neighbours) by S.D. Muni; Cambridge University Press India Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi; pp. VII + 178; price: Rs 495.

Not many of us know that the ‘democracy-Icon’ of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released this Saturday (November 13) was educated at Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College where she studied Political Science and grew up as a political activist to ensure ‘democracy’ back home in Myanmar. While the Indian Government has expressed hope that her release will initiate the process of reconciliation in Myanmar, US President Barack Hussein Obama dubbed Suu Kyi as his hero. In his statement to the press Obama remarked:

She is a hero of mine and a source of inspiration for all who work to advance basic human rights in Burma and around the world.1

Here is an attempt to analyse the responses from the USA and India on Suu Kyi’s release in the backdrop of S.D. Muni’s book, India’s Foreign Policy: The Democracy Dimension (With Special Reference to Neighbours). Muni, while highlighting the purpose of the book, noted in the ‘Preface’:

In the light of India’s policy shift in favour of promoting democracy at the global level, this study looks at India’s policy in the historical context in relation to the question of democracy. (p. VI)

In the introduction of the book, Muni has diligently elaborated upon the interface of democracy with international relations in general and foreign policy in particular. Immanuel Kant’s treatise on ‘Perpetual Peace’ has been cited as the pioneer of the most referred to theory of ‘Democratic Peace’. It is the same theory that is being propagated as the defence for the recent discourse of international relations that ‘the democracies do not go to war’. (p. 3)

The author has divided the book into three major historical periods and the chapters have been arranged accordingly. The first part covers the Nehruvian era which the author considers as a period where ‘Ideology’ was adjusted with ‘Political Realism’. India during this period did not join any international effort for promoting and strengthening democracy as a desirable political system in any country and in fact meticulously avoided making the cause of promoting democracy in the world as an integral part of its foreign policy. The second part deals with Nehru’s succesors where Realism occupied the front seat. Nehru and his successors, parti-cularly Indira Gandhi, made compromises on democracy—both at the domestic front (by imposing the Emergency) and at the external front while pursuing India’s vital strategic interest in the neighbourhood. (p. 9) The third part deals with the Imperatives of the New Millennium where an initiative with regard to India’s shift to the democratic dimension in its foreign policy was made by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government when it signed the Commu-nity of Democracy Charter. The ‘Community of Democracies’ (CD) was established at the turn of the century in June 2000 in Poland at the initiative of the USA. India joined the CD as a founding member with more than a hundred other countries. In the new millennium, the urge to enhance India’s strategic proximity to the USA and perusal of the global goal of democracy in foreign policy has cut across the political divide between the two formations that came to power in the last decade, that is, the NDA and United Progressive Alliance (UPA). (p. 14)

THE author has highlighted three areas where Nehru’s policy towards the democracy question in the neighbourhood was seriously put to test. They were the Himalayan Kingdoms (Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim), Myanmar (then Burma) period experienced two transitional political crises, the first during 1950-51 on the demise of ‘Ranacracy’ and the second in the 1960 when King Mahendra’s coup toppled a constitutionally established parliamentary system and the democratically elected government of B.P. Koirala. Nehru’s effort to achieve a compromise between the Ranas and the Nepali democrats was not received in good humour even by people close to him. One of Nehru’s socialist colleagues, Jayaprakash Narayan, expressed his strong opposition to Nehru’s stand. The author has cited several illustrations to conclude that it was for the sake of preserving its security interests that India had to compromise on the democracy objective in Nepal. (pp. 34-43) The security concern emanating out of Communist China remained the same for Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal but other conditions differed. While Bhutan was free in its internal affairs, its foreign relations were guided by Indian advice. Foreign relations of Sikkim (it remained as an Indian Protectorate until 1975), on the other hand, remained fully dependent on India. Another reason that the author has put forward for the ‘support for monarchies’ in Bhutan and Sikkim is that the forces of democratisation in both these countries had strong ethnic character. Myanmar faced two turbulent situations during Nehru’s time. First, the Communist uprising and ethnic revolt that plunged Burma into a civil-war situation, and second, Gen Ne Win’s military coup of 1962 against the democratic government of U Nu. (p. 47)

During the period that the successors of Nehru held sway, it has been well articulated by the author how Realism emerged as the guiding principle for Indian foreign policy. He has dubbed this period as one of ‘fading democratic commit-ment and emerging political pragmatism’. (p. 56) This section of the book deals with Nepal during the late 1980s and early nineties when the struggle for democracy took the form of ‘people’s uprising’ (popularly called Jan Andolan) which led to the abolition of the Panchayat system. The contrasting position of the Govern-ment of India and the political forces represented by it an anti-Panchayat and pro-multi-party democratic movement was visible with the government negotiating trade relations with the King’s representative and both the Congress and Janata Party activists blocking the flow of goods on the Indo-Nepal border. It was during this period that the internal struggle for democracy in East Pakistan culminated in the Indo-Pak conflict in 1971, resulting in the emergence of the sovereign democratic state of Bangladesh. The Indian Parliament finally incorporated Sikkim as the 22nd State of the Indian Union with a Constitutional Amendment. Chogyal, the ruler of Sikkim, described this integration as illegal and unconstitutional. So much so that Morarji Desai, when he was the Prime Minister of India, accepted that Sikkim should not have been integrated into the Indian Union but he expressed his inability to undo it. (p. 79) The question of democracy took a backseat during the period of Rajiv Gandhi when the brutal oppression of Tibet was overlooked in order to mend estranged relations with China. P.V. Narasimha Rao turned India’s traditional support for the democratic forces in Myanmar upside down. Citing security and strategic reasons, he made up with the ‘military junta’ which had refused to transfer power to Suu Kyi, despite the National League for Democracy winning more than 60 per cent of the seats in the 1990 elections.

The third section of the book has discussed the contemporary situations in most of India’s neighbours and their quest for the buzzword: ‘democracy’. The first part has a detailed discussion on Nepal, Myanmar, Afghanistan and China. In Nepal, the Maoists launched the ‘people’s war’ to establish ‘new democracy’ in 1996. India did not take the Maoists seriously before 2000, when they directly attacked the Army posts. Later, India declared the Nepali Maoists to be ‘terrorists’ even before the Nepalese Government did so. (p. 89) India’s overall approach towards Nepal was in coordination with the US. India, in a bid to correct the historical wrongs in Myanmar, emphasised for political reform and national reconciliation. India’s traditional and civilisational relations with Afghanistan got a rude shock during the height of the Taliban regime in the latter. India did not participate in the US-led war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda but got actively involved in building and strengthening alternative demo-cratic institutions in Afghanistan. India’s response to the latest Tibetan uprising was to play safe to maintain the cooperative momentum in its relations vis-à-vis China. In fact the Dalai Lama also described India’s action as “overcautious”. (p. 112) A new democratic wave spilled through in large parts of the Indian subcontinent, that is, covering Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Maldives. India’s immediate and important concern with respect to Pakistan was an end of terrorism rather than latter’s nature and form of government. There were visible improvements in Indo-Pak relations during the military regime of Pervez Musharraf which did not last long. A new Constitution in Bhutan provided for a consti-tutional monarchy and a democratic government has been installed recently. Maldives also ratified a new Constitution in August 2008 and elections were held in which Mohd. Nasheed ‘Anni’ of the Maldive Democratic Party was declared elected.

While one agrees with the overall theorisation of Nehru’s period when Ideology was adjusted with Realism, the author’s endorsement:

…Nehru’s preference for democracy in India as well as in the neighbourhood, under normal circumstances, was unquestioned and far more sincere and stronger than in the case of the Western leaders… (pp. 9-10)

shows his obvious bias for Nehru and it further raises an obvious query on the difference between intentions and actions. As Benjamin Zachariah in his recent biography of Nehru affirmed, the eventual dismissal of Namboodiripad’s govern-ment in Kerala was a significant act of destruc-tion of constitutional propriety ranking alongside the dismissal and imprisonment of Sheikh Abdullah in Kashmir. Zachariah noted:

Nehru in surrendering to his party’s Rightwing and to external pressures had struck a blow against the propriety he always stood for.2

Barack Obama has already been conferred with the Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps for his stated intention reflected in his victory speech. The concrete steps are yet to come. While the Community of Democracies echoed that the ‘…..will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of the government…’ (p. V), the US intervention in both Afghanistan and Iraq were justified on the plea of ‘promoting democracy’.

One is unable to find a reason for complete absence of one of India’s immediate neighbours, Sri Lanka, from this volume under review. Notwithstanding these few limitations, Muni’s book is a delight for the students of politics, international relations, policy-makers and foreign policy experts. The volume has a set of six Appendixes which are useful as primary source materials on Indian foreign policy. The narrative style of the author makes it an interesting and valuable read.


1. The Indian Express, New Delhi, November 14, 2010, p. 19

2. Zachariah, Benjamin (2004), Nehru, Routledge, London, p. 232.

Dr Arvind Kumar, a Research Associate at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, teaches Indian Foreign Policy at Zakir Husain College, University of Delhi.

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