Democracy and Indian foreign policy

To what extent is India’s foreign policy driven by the democracy factor? Yogesh Joshi reviews S.D. Muni’s latest book India’s Foreign Policy: The Democracy Dimension

Yogesh Joshi
22 March 2012

Immanuel Kant’s idea that democracies don’t fight wars with each other holds a lot of traction in contemporary international relations. Democratic peace theory, as this proposition is widely known, appears to enjoy natural sciences-like empirical validity since the proponents of the theory claim that there is hardly an instance in modern history where democracies have gone to war with each other. Though criticism of the democratic peace abounds in international relations literature especially regarding the definitional aspects of the concept of democracy, the mechanisms which the theory invokes in supporting its underlying logic and the ever present n+1 problem with inductive theories, the fact that it has become one of the most important alternative explanations in defining war and peace – the central puzzle of international politics – is beyond doubt.

There is another important facet of the democratic peace thesis. Unlike many other concepts and theories in international relations, the idea that democracies maintain peaceful relations among themselves has been accepted verbatim in actual policy decision making by many democratic states around the world, particularly the Western bloc of liberal democracies. Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen points, the ideological confrontation of the cold war and the recent concerted fight of democracies against global terrorism are examples of this symbiotic relationship between democratic peace theory and foreign policies of Western democracies. Spreading democratic values, therefore, has been accepted as a panacea for a world ridden with internecine conflicts between sovereign states.

The case of Western liberal democracies notwithstanding, it is extremely important to see how and to what extent the democracy factor works in the foreign policies of other states. In this regard S.D Muni’s latest scholarly rendition India’s Foreign Policy: The Democracy Dimension is a welcome contribution. Even though India is the world’s largest democracy and also a strong votary of democratic values and ethics, there is hardly any scholarly treatment of the impact of democracy on India’s foreign policy. Not only does this book fill in this critical gap in the literature, it also reflects on how the practices of the Indian state can nuance our understanding of the democratic peace thesis with special regard to the use of force and spread of democratic values.

For Muni, three factors have played an important role in determining how far the democracy dimension has influenced India’s foreign policy. First is the structure of global politics. For instance, just after independence, India had to confront both the bipolar reality of the cold war and the new wave of decolonisation and anti-imperialism. If the logic of the cold war necessitated a rather mute espousal of ideologies (read democracy) given the security concerns of a non-aligned state, the anti-colonial struggle warranted a policy strengthening the choice of colonial nations for democracy and freedom. The international structure indeed constituted a tight rope on which Indian decision makers had to walk when it came to democracy and its role in India’s foreign policy.

The circumstances have, however, changed dramatically after the end of the cold war. During this period, the project of democracy promotion has reached its crescendo and the ideology of spreading democracy has taken a hyper-masculine avatar – evident in the number of humanitarian interventions which international politics has lately seen. Under such circumstances, India too has been able to incorporate the democracy factor more robustly in its foreign policy. The role of democracy in the growing relations with USA is a case in point. India is actively involved in Afghanistan and its considerations during the most recent Gulf war  to send peace keeping troops to Iraq point in the same direction.

The second factor is the nature of internal politics. According to Muni, changing political alliances within Indian politics and the character of leadership has great relevance for India’s foreign policy. Democracy as a factor in external relations has not been untouched by this dynamic. Under Nehru’s as well as Indira Gandhi’s leadership the decision making process was highly centralised. Of late, with the coming of coalition governments, the tenor of India’s decision making apparatus has undergone change to the effect that multiple voices with multiple interests need to be accommodated. Centrality of leadership has been marginalised by the necessity of coalitional consensus.

Lastly the content and texture of the democratic struggles in the neighbourhood is also an important element in India’s posture. Muni claims that whereas in the immediate period after independence there was a great personal rapport between leaders spearheading democratic movements in India’s neighbourhood and India’s own political leadership given the ideological connections established during India’s freedom struggle, of late such connections have been hardly visible. Moreover, recent democratic urges in the neighbourhood are vastly different from the elitist movements of yesteryears; democratic aspirations have percolated down to the masses and there appears to be a massive involvement of the general public in democratic struggles. Therefore, elite connections between India’s political and social classes and that of its neighbours are not as relevant as they used to be. And therefore, the engineering of a democratic struggles that an Indian elite was able to perform during the rein of Jawaharlal Nehru is just not possible anymore. Nothing can be more revealing of this facet than the Maoist saga in Nepal.

Based on these variables, Muni offers a three-fold historical classification when it comes to the import of democracy in India’s foreign policy: the Nehruvian phase; the post-Nehruvian period and the period after the cold war. The Nehruvian phase, for Muni, was characterised by the constant compromise between ideological legacies of India’s independence movement, the consequent penchant for democratic politics and institutions on one hand, and the needs for India’s security and survival on the other. This adjustment between ideology and realpolitik, as Muni calls it, was reflected in India’s ill-treatment of the democratic aspirations of the Nepali Congress given her consequent interests in the stability provided by a favourably disposed Rana regime in Nepal. This adjustment led to what can at best be called a truncated version of democracy even when, according to Muni, the general mood in Nepal was in favour of a thorough democratic churning. Such compromises were evident in India’s policy towards Sikkim, Pakistan and Burma. Read in the light of a wonderful exposition of the Nehruvian strategy of conflict management by Srinath Raghavan in his book War and Peace in Modern India, Muni appears to be perfectly on the mark. However, what is quite evident in the Nehruvian period is India’s disinclination towards revolutionary change: Change was only welcome if it was evolutionary and gradual. This was reflected in India’s treatment of anti-monarchy demonstrations in Sikkim and anti-Rana struggles in Nepal. Clearly, the preference was for order rather than justice.

The post-Nehruvian period appears to be solely driven by realist logic where ideological affinities with democracy played a marginal role only to the extent that it supported the interest of the Indian state. Muni also claims that this period marked a decline in democratic values within India given Indira Gandhi’s imposition of emergency rule. This decline in democratic ethics within the state appears to have spilled over into the democratic rationale of its foreign policy.

In the post-Cold War period, Muni suggests that a normative discourse has entered the parlance of strategic thought where decisions have to be supported by the idioms of democratic values and human rights. Democracy, in other words, has become a vehicle for the advancement of strategic interests. He is apt to point out the increasing bonhomie between US and India and the role democratic rhetoric has played up in building the relationship between these two states.

It is more than apparent by now that the functional variable for Muni in this threefold classification is not democracy alone but its interaction with national interests’ especially strategic considerations. In the Nehruvian period, democracy was pursued to the extent that it does not impinge on India’s strategic necessities; a healthy balance between the two was seeked. Post-Nehru democracy was dumped altogether and realism took command where interests trumped ideology. For this reason alone, the Indian state reacted in a rather extreme way to the democratic concerns in its neighbourhood. On one hand, for example, Indira Gandhi’s regime wholeheartedly supported the monarchy in Nepal to the extent that it even deported B.P Koirala – a Nepali congress stalwart and close associate of Nehru – to a hostile monarchical dispensation in Nepal. On the other hand, it went to war with Pakistan over democratic rights of Bangladeshis and the huge humanitarian crises created by the purges of the East Pakistani army in Bangladesh. The incorporation of Sikkim into the Indian republic also conveys a similar story. In the new millennium where the jargon of democracy has occupied a distinct normative space in international political language, India seems to be playing the game well enough. Initiatives such as the communities of democracy and UN democracy fund, of which India has been a champion of sorts, indicate the use of a democracy idiom for strategic purposes.

This book is an immense source of learning for students who are interested in India’s foreign policy. The case studies are a real asset given the author’s expertise of the South Asian region. For those who want to see alternative models of how democratic politics influence foreign policy beyond those evident in the foreign policy discourse of the Western nations, I would recommend reading this book. The narrative offers a plethora of ideas suggesting that democracy and how it is perceived in the foreign policy domain differs from context to context. This facet is most evident in the Nehruvian strategy to deal with democratic aspirations of people in India’s neighbourhood and the issue of political transformation. This book, for me, can also be seen as a rebuttal of the neo-conservative logic of aggressive liberalism where war is considered a moral imperative in the promotion of democratic values; a contradiction so glaring that it makes the whole enterprise appear nothing more than a sham.

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