A country’s foreign policy is determined by its basic interests as an entity in the international arena contending for a place in the sun. Foreign policy is often presented in terms of lofty values, which are however put behind whenever security imperatives acquire overriding precedence. Security is a nation-state’s core concern. It is sought to be achieved through alliances that may, sometimes, warrant compromises, apart of course through strengthening of defences to deter aggression. How far has the security factor influenced India’s foreign policy in relation to its democratic advocacy and its interest in pluralistic, participative governments prevailing in and among the nations of the world?
S.D. Muni, a respected academic known for his expertise on India’s relations with neighbours — particularly Nepal — with a diplomatic stint as Ambassador to Laos, examines this theme in the monograph under review.
Muni concedes that democratic norms are given a low weightage in the formulation of foreign policy. Yet “the democracy dimension,” as his nuanced and well-ordered analysis brings out, does have a salience in India’s relations with its neighbours, besides enhancing its image as an Asian power with a global appeal. After outlining the theory behind democracy as an ideological undertow in diplomacy, he gives a historical review marking the phases where democratic preference stood out as the leitmotif of India’s foreign policy. The section where he discusses democratic values, in different degrees, as the drivers of its relations with the neighbouring countries in changing contexts is perhaps the most valuable part of the book.
He marks out three phases in the evolution of Indian foreign policy. First, the Nehru years, during which the newly independent India backed the anti-colonial movement and avoided the two Cold War alignments. India’s defence and security imperatives obliged it to conduct bilateral relations without overdoing the solidarity of democratic values. The country also distanced itself from the democratic zealotry of the West vis-a-vis the communist countries. Secondly, the Indira Gandhi era that saw India “balancing democracy with strategic interests.” Its military intervention in the Bangladesh war of 1971 was a prime example of democratic preference segueing into strategic necessity.
In Muni’s words, “The democracy factor was compromised as and when it came in conflict with immediate security interests. And secondly, the democracy factor was vigorously pursued when it was seen to be conducive to the perceived security interest.”
In the third phase, beginning approximately from 2000, India is forging a “strategic partnership” with the United States, the democratic superpower. The common interest of the two countries in defeating international terrorism (despite the frustrations associated with fighting an intangible enemy) prompted the United Progressive Alliance government to sound the chord of democracy to harmonise the strategic potential of the relationship. But in the process it has produced some discordant notes. The broad consensus across the political spectrum that was built over foreign policy during the earlier phases has broken down on the strategic partnership with the U.S. The author pinpoints the differences between the U.S. and India in their approach to developments in Nepal and Myanmar. India never subscribed to the American agenda of “encouraging pro-American systems and regimes around Russia,” nor to the induced regime changes in West Asia. But India did sign up for the Community of Democracies when it was founded in Poland in June 2000. It also contributed $10 million to the U.N. Democracy Fund in 2005.
Does “the democratic wave” in South Asia hold promise for warmer relations with our neighbours? When insecurity and distrust prevail, democracy can do little to aid diplomacy. The case studies of India’s relations with neighbours, cited by the author, reveal the poor convergence between the democratic factor and strategic perceptions. The state-inspired cross-border terror attacks on Indian targets subvert all efforts at improving the Indo-Pakistan relations. There has been no change in this policy line even after the return of civilian rule in Pakistan. As for relations with Nepal, as Muni explains, India’s record is inconsistent, with its interests coming under threat due to the growing Chinese influence and the spread of Maoist insurgency. In Myanmar, India has subordinated its sympathy for Aung San Suu Kyi’s democracy movement to its perceived interest in wooing the military regime as a strategy for securing the northeastern border and offsetting Chinese domination of that country. Bangladesh now offers hope for improved bilateral ties under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership, based on mutual trust, respect, and cooperation.
But for some annoying stylistic changes in printing and spelling errors — for instance, “Karan” for “Karen” and “statuesque” for “status quo” — the book is handsomely produced, with an index and footnoted references.
INDIA’S FOREIGN POLICY — The Democracy Dimension: S. D. Muni; Foundation Books, 4381/4, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 495.